The Flying Train: A 1902 Film Captures a Futuristic Ride on a Suspended Railway in Germany

We’ve been focusing a lot recently on old films from the turn of the century that a small group of enthusiasts have been “remastering” using AI, smoothing out the herky-jerky framing, upping the frame rate by interpolating between-frames, and more.

So what a surprise to find a recent look at a film in the Museum of Modern Art’s film collection from 1902 that already has the fidelity and smoothness, no AI needed.




The above footage is taken from the Wuppertaler Schwebebahn, the suspension railway built in the German city of Barmen in 1901. The Biography production company—best known to film students as the place where D.W. Griffiths got his start—was one of the most popular of the early film companies, and produced mini-docs like these, called Mutoscopes.

The Mutoscope used 68mm film, a film stock twice as large as most films at the time. (70mm film really only came into its own during the 1950s.) The 30 frames per second shooting rate was also faster than the usual 18fps or 24fps, which means the illusion of reality is closer to the video rate of today. The Mutoscope was also the name of the company’s viewer, where the frames were printed on cards and could be watched through a viewfinder. So we are watching a film that was never meant to be projected. (If you’re thinking that the Mutoscope was also used for private viewings of What the Butler Saw, you are correct.)

Despite the fidelity our favorite upscaler Denis Shiryaev still had a go at improving the footage and adding color and sound. (There’s also a competitor working on their own upscale and colorization version called Upscaled Studio). Which one is better, do you think? And how much was the experience improved?

And in case you’re wondering, the Wuppertal Schwebebahn still operates to this day, looking very much like it did back in 1902. The total route is just over eight miles long and follows the river Wupper for a lot of it, and services 82,000 commuters a day. (Less so during COVID of course.) You can check out footage below. It definitely looks fun fun fun on the Schwebebahn.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

How John Woo Makes His Intense Action Scenes: A Video Essay

The world does not lack action movies, but well-made ones have for most of cinema history been few and far between. Despite long understanding that action sells, Hollywood seldom manages to get the most out of the genre's master craftsmen. Hence the excitement in the early 1990s when fans of Hong Kong gangster pictures learned that John Woo, that country's preeminent action auteur, was coming stateside. His streak of Hong Kong hits at that point included A Better TomorrowThe KillerBullet in the Head, and Hard Boiled, most of which starred no less an action icon than Chow Yun-fat. For Woo's American debut Hard Target, starring a Belgian muscleman called Jean-Claude Van Damme, it would prove a hard act to follow.

Hard Target, Evan Puschak (better known as the Nerdwriter) drily puts it in the video essay above, is "not quite a masterpiece." Woo "battled a mediocre script, studio pressure, and a star who couldn't really act," and then "the studio re-edited a lot of the movie to get an R rating, and to make it more palatable for American moviegoers, diluting Woo's signature style in the process."




But despite being a weak spot in Woo's filmography, it makes for an illuminating case study in his cinematic style. Puschak calls its action scenes "absurdly creative" in a way that has "grown more impressive over time": in them Woo employs slow motion — a signature technique "he weaves it into his highly kinetic sequences like an expert composer" — and other forms of time dilation to "heighten the experience of impact."

Like most action movies, Hard Target offers a great many impacts: punches, kicks, improbable leaps, gunshots, and explosions aplenty. Under Woo's direction they feel even more plentiful than they are, given that he "often repeats things two or three times so that the impact has an echoing effect." Yet unlike in run-of-the mill examples of the genre, we feel each and every one of those impacts, owing to such relatively subtle editing strategies as presenting the firing of a gun and the bullet hitting its target as "two distinct moments." (Several such gunshots, as Puschak shows us using deleted footage, were among the studio-mangled sequences.) "This is unlike any traditional films in the States," Woo later said of Hard Target's disappointing performance, "so the audience didn’t understand what’s going on with these techniques." More than a quarter-century later, Western audiences have more of a grasp of Woo's cinematic language, but few other filmmakers have come close to mastering it.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Golden Age of Berlin Comes to Life in the Classic, Avant-Garde Film, Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927)

The rediscovery of Berlin began thirty years ago this November, with the demolition of the wall that had long divided the city's western and eastern halves. Specifically, the Berlin Wall had stood since 1961, meaning the younger generation of West and East Berliners had no memory of their city's being whole. In another sense, the same could be said of their parents' generation, who saw nearly a third of Berlin destroyed in the Second World War. Only the most venerable Berliners would have remembered the social and industrial golden age the undivided city enjoyed back in the 1920s — an age exhilaratingly presented in the film Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis.

An early example of the silent-era "city symphonies" that showed off the capitals of the world on film (several of which you can watch here on Open Culture), Berlin takes the viewer along streets and waterways, through parks, onto trains and elevators, on roller coasters, and into factories, building sites, cabarets, and skies. Shot over a year and compressed into less than an hour, this avant-garde documentary captures the experience of Berlin in the 1920s — or rather it captures, in that mightily industrial age, experience at the intersection of human and machine. Director Walther Ruttmann "charts the movements of crowds of children, workers, swimmers, rowers, and so on," writes Popmatters' Chadwick Jenkins, "but only occasionally focuses on a person as an individual. Moreover, many of the most striking scenes in the film avoid the intrusion of people altogether, concentrating instead on the operation of mechanical devices."

Absent explanatory narration or title cards, the film invites a variety of readings. Chadwick sees it as "the defamatory dehumanization of the human, the derogation of human autonomy and dominion over a world of indifferent matter, a reduction of the divine spark in humankind to the status of another mere thing." This same quality drove away one of Ruttmann's key collaborators on Berlin, the writer Carl Mayer. Ruttmann, for his part, described his own motivation as "the idea of making something out of life, of creating a symphonic film out of the millions of energies that comprise the life of a big city."

A primary interest in movement itself is perhaps to be expected from a filmmaker who had previously distinguished himself as an abstract animator. (What his later work as an assistant to Leni Riefenstahl on Triumph of the Will indicates is another matter.) But if Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis "dehumanizes," writes Jenkins, it does so as a deliberate artistic strategy to show that "the city is more than its various components, including its human components," and to "provide an insight into the emergent qualities that make a city what it is, beyond being a mere composite of the elements within its geographical boundaries," however those boundaries get drawn and redrawn over time.

Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis will be added to our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

A Physicist Examines the Scientific Accuracy of Physics Shown in Major Movies: Batman, Gravity, Contact, Interstellar, Star Trek & More

Ever had a friend who cannot bring themselves suspend disbelief? It’s not a moral failing, but it can be a tedious quality in situations like, say, the movies, or the cinema, or whatever you call it when you’ve paid your day’s wages for a giant tub of carcinogenic popcorn and a three-hour distraction. (These days, maybe, an overpriced streaming new release and Grubhub.) Who doesn’t love a big-screen science fiction epic—science be damned? Who wants to listen to the seatmate who mutters "oh, come on!,” “no way!,” “well, actually, that’s scientifically impossible”? You know they never passed intro to physics….

Dominic Walliman, on the other hand, is a physicist. And he is not the kind of person to ruin a movie by going on about how goofy its scientific ideas sound, though he’s likely to express appreciation for films that get it right. He doesn’t get bent out of shape by artistic license and can appreciate, for example, the creative use of visual effects in Interstellar to represent a black hole, which would otherwise appear onscreen as, well, a black hole. “I’m okay with bad physics in movies,” he says, “because the job of a movie isn’t to be a science documentary, the goal of a movie is to tell an interesting story.”




Even so, if you sit him down and ask him to talk specifically about science in movies, as a friend does in the video above, he’ll tell you what he thinks, and you’ll want to listen to him (after the movie’s over) because he actually knows what he’s talking about. Over the years, Walliman has mapped various domains of science, like chemistry, computer science, biology, mathematics, physics, and his own field, quantum physics. His visual explanations make the relationships between difficult concepts clear and easy to follow. In this video, he comments on some of your favorite science fiction and fantasy films (standouts include the first Batman and Ron Howard’s Angels & Demons) in ways that are equally illuminating.

Big winners for relative accuracy, in Walliman’s opinion, are no surprise. They include Gravity, Contact (written by Carl Sagan), even a clip from the incredibly smart Futurama. It is soon apparent that the use of a folded piece of paper to represent spacetime through a wormhole has “become a bit of a cliché,” although a helpful-enough visual aid. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is “boring” (with apologies), a judgment that might disqualify Walliman as a film critic, in many people’s opinion, but does not tarnish his scientific reputation.

One of the biggest science-in-film fails: 2009’s Star Trek, whose villains have discovered a substance called “red matter.” A single drop can destroy an entire planet, and the idiots seem to have enough onboard their ship to take out the universe with one careless oopsie. Walliman is maybe not qualified to weigh in on the paleobiology of Jurassic Park, but Jeff Goldblum’s explanation of chaos theory fits within his purview. “So, this is not a good description of chaos theory,” he says, “at all.” It is, however, a fabulous plot device.

If you’re interested in more engagingly accessible, non-cinema-related, surveys of scientific ideas, visit any one of Walliman’s many Domain of Science videos here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Revisit Scenes of Daily Life in Amsterdam in 1922, with Historic Footage Enhanced by Artificial Intelligence

Welkom in Amsterdam… 1922.

Neural network artist Denis Shiryaev describes himself as “an artistic machine-learning person with a soul.”

For the last six months, he’s been applying himself to re-rendering documentary footage of city life—Belle Epoque ParisTokyo at the start of the the Taishō era, and New York City in 1911—the year of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

It’s possible you’ve seen the footage before, but never so alive in feel. Shiryaev’s renderings trick modern eyes with artificial intelligence, boosting the original frames-per-second rate and resolution, stabilizing and adding color—not necessarily historically accurate.




The herky-jerky bustling quality of the black-and-white originals is transformed into something fuller and more fluid, making the human subjects seem… well, more human.

This Trip Through the Streets of Amsterdam is truly a blast from the past… the antithesis of the social distancing we must currently practice.

Merry citizens jostle shoulder to shoulder, unmasked, snacking, dancing, arms slung around each other… unabashedly curious about the hand-cranked camera turned on them as they go about their business.

A group of women visiting outside a shop laugh and scatter—clearly they weren’t expecting to be filmed in their aprons.

Young boys looking to steal the show push their way to the front, cutting capers and throwing mock punches.

Sorry, lads, the award for Most Memorable Performance by a Juvenile goes to the small fellow at the 4:10 mark. He’s not hamming it up at all, merely taking a quick puff of his cigarette while running alongside a crowd of men on bikes, determined to keep pace with the camera person.

Numerous YouTube viewers have observed with some wonder that all the people who appear, with the distant exception of a baby or two at the end, would be in the grave by now.

They do seem so alive.

Modern eyes should also take note of the absences: no cars, no plastic, no cell phones…

And, of course, everyone is white. The Netherlands’ population would not diversify racially for another couple of decades, beginning with immigrants from Indonesia after WWII and Surinam in the 50s.

With regard to that, please be forewarned that not all of the YouTube comments have to do with cheeky little boys and babies who would be pushing 100…

The footage is taken from the archival collection of the EYE filmmuseum in Amsterdam, with ambient sound by Guy Jones.

See more of Denis Shiryaev’s  upscaled vintage footage in the links below.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Metropolis’ Cinematically Innovative Dance Scene, Restored as Fritz Lang Intended It to Be Seen (1927)

When it came out in 1927, Fritz Lang's Metropolis showed audiences the kind of wholly invented reality, hitherto beyond imagination, that could be realized in motion pictures. Its vision of a society bisected into colossal skyscrapers and underground warrens, an industrial Art Deco dystopia, continues to influence filmmakers today. This despite — or perhaps because of — the simple story it tells, in which Freder, the scion of the city of Metropolis, rebels against his father after following Maria, a good-hearted maiden from the underclass, into the infernal lower depths.

In the role of Maria was a then-unknown 18-year-old actress named Brigitte Helm. "For all the steam and special effects," writes Robert McG. Thomas Jr. in Helm's New York Times obituary, "for many who have seen the movie in its various incarnations, including a tinted version and one accompanied by music, the most compelling lingering image is neither the towers above nor the hellish factories below. It is the startling transformation of Ms. Helm from an idealistic young woman into a barely clad creature performing a lascivious dance in a brothel."

Halfway through the film, Maria gets kidnapped by the villainous inventor Rotwang and cloned as a robot. It is this robot, not the real Maria, who takes the stage in the scene in question, practically nude by the standards of silent-era cinema. Lang used the sequence to push not just the bounds of propriety, but the aesthetic capabilities of his art form: viewers would never have seen anything like the frame-filling field of eyeballs into which the slavering crowd of tuxedoed men dissolve. Here we have a medium demonstrating decisively and powerfully what sets it apart from all others, in just one of the scenes restored only recently to its original form.

When Thomas alluded to the many extant cuts of Metropolis in his 1996 obituary for Helm, the now-definitive version of the picture that made her a star still lay in the future. 2010's The Complete Metropolis includes material rediscovered just two years before, on a 16-millimeter reduction negative stored at Buenos Aires' Museo del Cine and long forgotten thereafter. Now, just as Lang intended us to, we can behold his cinematic vision of rulers employing the highest technology to keep even the elite mesmerized by titillating spectacles — a fantastical scenario that has nothing at all to do, of course, with the future as it actually turned out.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Watch Manhatta, the First American Avant-Garde Film (1921)

Every city needs its ideal observer. Moreover, a city needs an ideal observer for each of its eras, and ideally each of its eras will have an ideal observer in each major medium. Booming with industry in the mid-19th century and daily absorbing more of what must have seemed like the entire world, New York fairly demanded the celebratory poetic capacity of Walt Whitman. In time, Whitman's 1860 poem "Mannahatta" would inspire two visual artists to capture the city in another time, and through a brand new medium. Begun in 1920 as a collaboration by photographer-painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand, Manhatta (note the slightly different spelling) made cinematic history as the first American avant-garde film.

It also delivered a kind overture for the "city symphony," a genre of film that would, over the rest of the decade, test the potential of the motion picture by using it to capture the unprecedented dynamism of metropolises around the world. (You can see many more of them here at Open Culture.)




Manhatta is poetic in its use of imagery — Strand, after all, was the author of the iconic 1915 photograph Wall Street, New York — but as the Museum of Modern Art says, "for all its art, Manhatta is also documentary. It leads viewers through a day in the life of Manhattan, introduced by lines from one of Whitman’s many odes to his beloved home: 'City of the world (for all races are here) / City of tall facades of marble and iron, / Proud and passionate city.'"

Whitman's words appear on intertitles throughout the film, paying tribute to "the shovel, the derrick, the wall scaffold, the work of walls and ceilings" and "shapes of the bridges, vast frameworks, girders, arches" between shots of New York Harbor, the Staten Island Ferry terminal, the Brooklyn Bridge, and other of the city's marvels of infrastructure and architecture. (Above, thanks to Aeon, you can watch a digitally-restored version of Manhatta, with a newly commissioned score by composer William Pearson.) The last of these 65 shots captures a sunset view from a skyscraper,  a kind of building that Whitman, who died in 1892, would scarcely have imagined. But he surely believed that this "modern Babylon-on-the-Hudson," as Manhatta bills it, would never cease to grow fuller, taller, and mightier, taking forms in the future unpredictable even by the ideal observers of its past.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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