Workers Leaving the Factory: How Louis Lumière’s 1895 film bound labour and cinema together for eternity

Traditionally considered the first ever motion picture, its image of workers leaving the factory was a veritable birthmark for the medium.

Srikanth Srinivasan May 01, 2021 12:24:27 IST
Workers Leaving the Factory: How Louis Lumière’s 1895 film bound labour and cinema together for eternity

Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon-Monplaisir, 1895

It is in leaving the Lumière factory that the workers give themselves over to cinema, that they attain the status both of actresses and of future spectators. Moving away from work, they enter the enchanted world of entertainment. For the world of work is only weakly enchanted (enchanting), and unlikely to be enchanted in return by cinema, except in the form of a nightmare…

— Jean-Louis Comolli, Images Documentaires 24

On 22 March 1895, in the Rue de Rennes in Paris, inventor and industrialist Louis Lumière presented a private demo of a motion picture system he had devised with his elder brother Auguste. The device was called Cinématographe, and the 17-metre strip of celluloid used to show its working was titled Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon-Monplaisir. Lasting about 50 seconds when projected at a certain speed, it showed a mass of labourers, mostly women, leaving the Lumière facility at lunch hour from either side of two gateways. The audience at the demo, composed of businessman, researchers and photography enthusiasts, was very different from the people on screen, as most movie audiences would be in the coming decades. Traditionally considered the first ever motion picture, Lumière’s film bound labour and cinema together for eternity, the image of workers leaving the factory being a veritable birthmark for the medium.

What is less well-known, however, is that there were at least three versions of the film. In the first two iterations, the gates are already open, and the workers flood out from the first frame onwards. Even so, the factory is not emptied by the time the picture ends — that is, by the time the camera runs out of film. The culprit appears to be a horse buggy that takes time to come out of the facility. The third version premiered in the first commercial showing of Lumières’ films in the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris on 28 December 1895. In it, the door opens only after the film has begun, and thanks to the absence of the buggy, the workers get out in time and the door is (almost) closed. Now considered the definitive version, this “first film” in the history of cinema, was in fact a remake of a remake.

Why did Louis Lumière make several versions of the film? One theory is that, since there were no internegatives in the film development process at the time, the original negative degraded with every new print made. The picture had to be therefore reshot onto a new negative so that fresh copies could be made for various screenings across the continent. Another hypothesis is that the Lumières didn’t like the quality of the picture and judged that the factory gates should close before the camera ran out of film. After all, a door opening and closing in the manner of a theatrical curtain had a certain spectacle about it that is missing in the first two versions, which drop us in medias res, so to speak.

Whatever the reason, it is believed that, after the first version of March 1895, the brothers summoned their workers for repeated takes, sometime in early summer. The planned day of reshoot falling on the Lord’s Day, the Lumières requested their employees to come to the factory after the Sunday mass to simulate the scene of workers leaving for lunch on a workday. As a result, in the second and third versions of the film, the participants’ hats and clothes are fancier, their mood more cheerful: one female employee mischievously tugs at the skirt of another just as they take leave from each other. The actors themselves seem wiser to the presence of the camera, more professional, so to speak. In comparison to its predecessors, the third film is on the whole more harmonious, less chaotic, the flow of workers out the gates more streamlined. Except for an implacable canine and his bicycle-bound master, who appear in all three versions, the play of chance in this definitive version is minimal.

It is not known whether the participants were paid for any of the versions, if not as the first actors of cinema, at least as workers doing overtime (on a Sunday to boot — France wouldn’t become officially secular until 10 years later). At the time, there was no law in effect in France limiting the working hours. Labour unions were illegal in the country until 1884 and the General Confederation of Labour (La CGT), France’s first and largest confederation of labour unions was established only in September 1896, sometime between the private and the commercial screenings of Lumières’ film. On 1 May 1891, incited by Paul Lafargue (a son-in-law of Karl Marx’s), textile workers up north organised demonstrations in favour of the eight-hour work day. In the town of Fourmies, soldiers opened fire on the demonstrators, killing nine young people.

Workers Leaving the Factory How Louis Lumires 1895 film bound labour and cinema together for eternity

Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon-Monplaisir, 1895

The protests were an emanation of the ferment across the Atlantic, where there was considerable labour unrest in the preceding decade. In May 1886, workers in Chicago rallied in favour of a universal adoption of the eight-hour work day, until then applicable to only certain sections of the American workforce. The rallies turned violent, a bomb exploded and several people died. Three years later, the Second International, adopted the 1st of May as the International Workers’ Day to commemorate the events in Chicago and to continue the campaign for the eight-hour work day. The demonstration at Fourmies was part of this campaign.

Much has changed in the nature of labour, its conditions and its screen representation in the century since Lumières’ film. Workers Leaving a Factory seems to possess a historical innocence that is impossible to recapture now. The men and women leaving the Lumière factory did so in an era of industrial optimism and ground-breaking scientific progress. It wasn’t until the First World War, and its technologised warfare, that this faith in scientific rationalism was seriously questioned. With Fordism rendering skilled labour ever more marginal and the Great Depression causing unprecedented levels of unemployment, industrial work could no longer be viewed the same way. The downbeat image of hunched, robotic workers changing shifts in an underground industrial-city in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) or the cut from a herd of sheep to contemporary workers leaving the subway in Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) altered the primal scene of Lumières’ film irrevocably.

For the centenary anniversary of Workers Leaving a Factory, German filmmaker Harun Farocki made a video work of the same name, which traces the cinematic genealogy of the “first film”. Analysing photographed images of workers at factory gates through the years, Farocki deems it “an image like an expression, which can be suited to many occasions”. His film views the area outside the factory as a dialectical space. For one, it is the place of direct confrontation between Labour and Capital: between picketers and guards, between strikers and the police. The factory gate becomes the membrane that separates work from workers, an economic system from its constituents. It is at the factory gate that Labour and Capital identify themselves by identifying the other

Farocki also regards this space as facilitating diverging definitions of the public and the private. On one hand, the factory entrance mashes private individuals into the mass being called workforce. It is for this reason that much of popular cinema centres on life outside work. In these films, narratives about individual lives begin once work is over and the impersonal, faceless workforce dissolves into separate somebodies. They replace the viewer’s leisure time with that of the characters, our problems with theirs and provide vicarious pleasures and catharses. “Whenever possible, film has moved hastily away from factories,” says Farocki’s narrator, noting that in one hundred years of cinema, there have been more prisons and correctional facilities than factories and workers. It is indeed telling that mainstream cinema has shown itself better equipped to depict work when it is a form of punishment or a crime than when it is part of an everyday reality.

On the other hand, suggests Farocki’s film, the area in front of the factory gates is itself subject to competing notions of property and theft. While the territorial imperative of Capital defines this liminal space as the company’s private property, for the workers it becomes a public area of discussion, congregation and protest. “Where the first camera once first stood, there are now hundreds of thousands of surveillance cameras,” notes Farocki’s narrator, pointing out how cinema unwittingly became an instrument to safeguard Capital. The apparent innocence of Lumières’ film may, however, be fallacious too. With the camera cranked by Louis Lumière himself, and his employees dutifully hurrying out of the factory under his instructions, it could be argued that even the first film was a form of surveillance footage.

Surveying the factory gates is evidently in the interests of owners, but what happens when employees do the surveying? In the era of invisible labour — the rise of the class of knowledge workers, the erosion of the boundary between workplace and home, and the ceaseless digitisation of all work in general — does it even matter if the factory gates are watched over? Some companies certainly think so. In his digital video Workers Leaving the Googleplex (2011), American artist Andrew Norman Wilson recounts the repercussions of filming and talking to workers leaving the “ScanOps” facility at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. These temp workers, responsible for digitising printed matter for Google Books, comprise chiefly people of colour and don’t have the same rights as other contract employees at the firm. Wilson, himself a contract employee with the tech giant at the time, was sacked for violating the non-disclosure agreement even though his footage barely shows any worker leaving the building. If Lumières’ film has any lasting politico-cinematic lesson, it’s that bosses will always want to be the ones holding the camera.

Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B

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