Next Stop Eternity: Peter Tscherkassky’s Train Again and the Love Story of Railroads and Film

By Christoph Huber.

I

Peter Tscherkassky’s 20-minute film Train Again unearths some new materialist marvels while expanding on those typically Tscherkasskian sensations the Austrian filmmaker achieves through the technique of contact printing, in which found footage is copied by hand, frame by frame, onto unexposed film stock. His announcement reads as follows: “18 years after Kurt Kren produced his third film, 3/60 Bäume im Herbst (3/60 Trees in Autumn), he shot his masterpiece 37/78 Tree Again. 18 years after I created my third darkroom film L’Arrivée (an homage to the Lumière brothers and their 1895 L’arrivée d’un train), I embarked on Train Again. This film is an homage to Kurt Kren that simultaneously taps into a classic motif in film history. My darkroom ride took a few years, but we finally arrived: All aboard!”

II

Before quickly shifting into high gear, Train Again begins with two static shots of people waiting, both presented as negative images and lasting 15 to 20 seconds. The first shows two people with their suitcases on a deserted stretch of railroad. One is standing in the middle of the track, back to the viewer, presumably gazing into the distance along the vanishing lines suggested by the two rails converging toward the horizon. The other is lying on the right side of the track, head on the rail, as if listening for an approaching train. The second shot sets up a makeshift cinema situation: people are gathering in front of a screen, bringing their own chairs and sitting down, glancing forward, waiting for the show to start, although one lady at the right repeatedly looks back toward the camera, and, by implication, at the audience. What are we waiting for?

III

The auspicious connection of cinema and trains harks back to the official beginning of the seventh art. Although L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat was, contrary to myth, not part of the program of ten films that Auguste and Louis Lumière presented as the first exhibited motion-picture screening on December 28, 1895, it would be shown to an audience in January 1896. Famously, it inaugurated an even more powerful myth: that the 50-second shot of a mighty steam locomotive rolling into the station and toward the camera caused an uproar in the audience, with some of viewers fleeing in a screaming fit, afraid the train might hit them. While this story is considered an urban legend and/or a clever marketing ploy, its poetic appeal remains understandably irresistible: could there be a better illustration of the powerful impact made by the new technology of cinema?

For while the movies are roughly contemporaneous with the automobile and the aeroplane rather than the railroad (the first locomotives were built at the beginning of the 19th century, but the great expansion of railway systems only happened in the late 1860s after a breakthrough in steel fabrication), it was the latter that would prove the harbinger of both a new modernity and an acceleration of movement that would come fully into its own during the next century. The parallels are too numerous to mention, beginning with the obvious resemblance of a film strip to train tracks, and extending even to the vocabulary associated with both, from the “tracking shot” to the “transporting experience.”

Just like the railroad collapsed distances, making comfortable trips out of what had until quite recently been strenuous journeys, the cinema could bring the farthest regions of the world close to home, with the silver screen additionally evoking the view out of a train window. Phantom rides—films that consisted of a tracking shot taken from a moving vehicle—proved to be one of the most popular forms of early cinema, and one of this genre’s most successful applications at amusement parks was the so-called “Pleasure Railway” contraptions like “Hale’s Tours of the World,” in which the paying “passengers” boarded an imitation train car to be shown phantom rides, the realism of their journey increased by artificially produced rocking motions, wind machines, and sound effects.

IV

The third shot of Train Again is introduced by a lateral wipe outwards that suggests the opening of a curtain and the beginning of a cinema projection, offering a view of a horse carriage coming around the arc of a palace garden. (Dirk Schaefer’s meticulous soundtrack underlines this image with a whirring sound and the tinkling chords of easygoing piano accompaniment.) As a train whistle sounds, Tscherkassky starts to intercut this sound with a railway tunnel (again, first seen as a negative image, as will be so many shots in this film that conjures the ghosts of analogue cinema). Soon, shots of a train coming out of the tunnel alternate, in almost stroboscopic bursts of quick cuts, with images of riders on horseback, galloping at high speed. When these are finally superimposed on a long-held shot of railway carriages coming out of the tunnel, forming a repeating pattern, at times the train itself seems to become the screen on which they are projected as “phantom riders.”

Are we witnessing how one type of locomotion literally outpaces another, the common horse dethroned by its iron counterpart? After all, the first public railways were horse cars, and for urban trams horses remained the preferred mode pretty much up until the dawn of cinema (and the advent of electrification), as steam engines caused too much smoke in city streets. Pointedly, amongst Tscherkassky’s set of riders—inaugurated by a cowboy on his reared-up horse, but then switching to elegantly frocked ladies and gentlemen from European historical adventures—are quite a few that painfully fall off their horses in a whirlwind of competing imagery. The segment, altogether slightly over two minutes long, ends with the Western horseman jumping onto a moving train and riding atop it until both disappear in the darkness of a tunnel.

V

From Hitchcock/Truffaut, about North by Northwest (1959):

Alfred Hitchcock: “And the final shot, immediately following that scene in the sleeping car, is probably one of the most impudent shots I ever made.”

François Truffaut: “When the train goes into the tunnel?”

Hitchcock: “Yes. The phallic symbol.”

Truffaut: “All the more important, since North by Northwest, unlike Psycho (1960), is a family-type picture, the kind one takes kiddies to.”

VI

A pioneering moment of narrative editing in cinema was facilitated by George Albert Smith, a Londoner who started out as a stage hypnotist and mind reader before becoming a skillful manipulator of the magic lantern and, finally, a filmmaker, whose later experiments with colour produced marvels like Tartans of Scottish Clans (1906). In 1899, feeling that the by-now established genre of phantom rides could use some extra spice, Smith came up with The Kiss in the Tunnel, a scene of a man in a train compartment flirting with and ultimately kissing the woman opposite him. This shot was meant to be spliced into train footage of phantom rides going through tunnels, an idea that would soon be imitated all over the world.

However, in the case of Train Again what happens inside the trains remains essentially irrelevant, as do the people aboard. (Only the driver and the stoker make appearances, as somebody has to keep the engine running.) In Georges Simenon’s 1938 novel L’homme qui regardait passer les trains (which was made much tamer for Harold French’s 1952 film version, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By), the driven protagonist feels the allure associated with the inner lives of trains: “And finally, if he had searched in his conscience, in all seriousness, for anything predisposing him to an eventual future, he would probably not have thought of a certain furtive, almost shameful emotion that disturbed him whenever he saw a train go by, a night train especially, its blinds drawn down on the mystery of its passengers.” There are many types of great train films that use this allure and the inherent filmic possibilities of the setting fortuitously, but what we are concerned with here is the cinematic capacity of the moving train itself—and, of course, its derailing.

After all, another reason why railways almost instantly established themselves as a major motif in cinema is the sight of such sheer mass hurtling along. It is the ostensible power of the train that made the Lumière myth so powerful, and if the history of cinema since has told us anything it is that one of the abiding allures of filmic spectacles is the sight of destruction. Its hilarious, awesome, and scary potential, all of which is channeled differently into Train Again, were famously condensed into Bruce Conner’s A Movie (1960), whose core idea came from seeing the crazy “Help is on the way!” montage from the end of Duck Soup (1933): “After that I started thinking about all the things I could stick together in a sequence like that: elephants running, trains blowing up, cars going, cars crashing, and so on and so forth,” said Conner.

VII

From the sudden blackness of the tunnel, Train Again returns to the shot of the emerging train, now held for an even longer time, while the image gets the jitters and darkens ominously. Schaefer’s soundtrack steels us for a hell of a ride, with pounding rhythms and alarming signal-horn-style boosts, before a roughly five-minute-long symphony of train imagery is unleashed, peaking in an almost abstract arrangement of constantly changing lines and diagonals. For this next movement, Tscherkassky begins with the superimposition of a close-up of rotating wheels connected by a side rod, then underlines the musicality of the arrangement by interpolating a shot of a pianist’s hands dashing over the keyboard (like the film strip itself, a mirror image of the train tracks), reminding one that the upcoming orgy of patterns is related to Busby Berkeley as well as modern art.

Mirroring the image vertically, Tscherkassky has the train come together from both ends of the picture, folding in on itself to create a diamond shape. Coal is shovelled and the switches move into place with a satisfying clank, with the engine driver presiding as a lookout over the accelerating movement, dispersed in a rapid onslaught of shapes: mostly quick successions of rails stretching in all directions, punctuated by round objects and human forms, all of which seem familiar from not one, but hundreds of movies. Similar multiplication happens through several simultaneous superimpositions spread out over different parts of the image, culminating in casual overlaps of railway tracks and film strips, which waver in a horizontal direction at odds with the forward movement of the train journey. Individual frames, their sprocket holes, and even the soundtracks and notation markings additionally fill the split pictures, which seem to overflow and feel ready to crack up completely at any moment—which is the very kind of effect Tscherkassky’s darkroom magic will conjure next.

VIII

The “arrival of the film itself” is how Tscherkassky described this when he manufactured, with more modest means, a similar effect at the beginning of his 1998 L’Arrivée (the first entry in the artist’s “CinemaScope Trilogy”): using as his source material Terence Young’s historical epic Mayerling (1968), Tscherkassky rendered the essence of the Hollywood formula—set-up, catastrophic climax, and a happy-ending kiss between the stars—in a mere two minutes, showcasing not only his playfulness and wit, but also his earnestness as a knowledgeable theoretician bent on turning bold experimental concepts into perplexing practice. The trilogy’s next two installments, the show-stopping Outer Space (1999) and the sublime Dream Work (2001), were both fashioned from Sidney J. Furie’s remarkable horror oddity The Entity (1982). Finally, for Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005), Tscherkassky drew on Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) and managed to transform one masterpiece into another.

Since then, Tscherkassky has practiced his particular black-and-white darkroom art—an artisanal and time-consuming found-footage practice that faces the ongoing extinction of cinema’s celluloid era with powerful and proudly “handmade” effects that can only be achieved with film—in what he calls “The Rushes Series,” since all these works are made from rushes of different sources. Coming Attractions (2010) combined avant-garde with early cinema and commercials, The Exquisite Corpus (2015) with erotic imagery and surrealist ideas. Drawing on a cinematic trope associated with kineticism, and repeatedly escalating into a furious frenzy, Train Again feels more akin to Outer Space and Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine but is also infused with the expansive spirit of the later work, giving a Tscherkasskian spin not just to a certain aspect of film history, but to entire chapters of its evolution.

Thus, Train Again marks a point of confluence with particular aplomb, and may come to occupy a key junction in the history of trains and cinema, whose natural affinity allows certain types of “conventional” narrative (and also documentary) films to achieve effects associated with experimental cinema. I can’t think of many better examples of “pure film” than long stretches of, say, Robert Aldrich’s Emperor of the North Pole (1973), Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train (1985)—whose credits sequence is an avant-garde bit that could almost be inserted into the new Tscherkassky—or Tony Scott’s Unstoppable (2010), which is used extensively in Train Again. This underlines the Austrian filmmaker’s particular knack for bringing out the experimental in the popular (and vice versa) without selling either short. Of course, Train Again also expands the notable experimental tradition of train movies, which includes (among many other examples) Robert Breer’s Fuji (1974) and Stan Brakhage’s tribute to it, RR (1981)—also the title of a 2007 James Benning film—Storm De Hirsch’s Cayuga Run (1967), and, of course, Jean Mitry’s Pacific 231 (1949), which was composed to fit Arthur Honegger’s musical piece of the same name.

IX

A text at the beginning of Pacific 231 reads: “This film is not a ‘documentary,’ but an attempt to create an atmosphere by associating visual impressions and familiar sounds, intimately mingled with the music score.” Yet Mitry’s film clearly belongs in a line that harks back to that poetic highlight of the Grierson documentary school (and train films in general), Night Mail (1935). It would be pursued further in the industrial documentaries by Geoffrey Jones, especially his masterwork Snow (1963), not to mention (considering Tscherkassky’s celebration of the kinetic possibilities of catastrophe) those remarkably sadistic Public Information Films like John Krish’s The Finishing Line (1977), which presents a playful inventory of how to die by train. In any case, the part of Train Again I described in section VI above often feels to me like a cubist version of Pacific 231, amongst many other things.

X

Although Tscherkassky always keeps his onslaught of imagery on track, the violent mechanical impulses at play (in the vehicles visible in the image and the machinery transporting them) cannot be contained, and repeatedly demand cataclysmic release. Rather than being derailed, the Gordian knot conjured by a flux of intersecting pictures is cut loose by being shattered. Underneath the patterns formed by shards of rails and film strips, concrete images flicker up again, revealing another key motif of train cinema: the building of the railroad in Westerns. (Like several previous and later images in the film, these are drawn from Gore Verbinski’s unfortunate 2013 version of The Lone Ranger. I thought I had forgotten all about it, but instantly recognized the bits and pieces Tscherkassky used, which almost made me want to revisit it.)

In a gesture that still makes me laugh in surprise after a dozen viewings, the subsequent, more measured two-minute section of combined imagery of trains and film strips running is augmented by one of those flickering image-within-the-image spots Tscherkassky can create in the darkroom, showcasing an entirely different movement: that of the young boy on his tricycle followed by the Steadicam-smooth tracking shot as he makes the rounds of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980). The amusement springs not only from how unexpected this insertion is, but also from the memory of a motion that is utterly at odds with the mighty assault of an onrushing train. More seriously, it also reminds one that the horrors of the Overlook are associated, however loosely, with the desecration of an Indigenous burial ground and the genocide of Native Americans in general—the process of brutal colonization that accompanied the building of the railroad, which, in the Western, has always been a symbol of the establishment of civilization.

XI

Although neither the first Western nor the first major narrative film (more train-related myths of early cinema), Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) proved a breakthrough due to its combination of basic elements of plotting and recently discovered filmic possibilities like cross-cutting (brought to an early epic apex in another train-related scene only 13 years later in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance), paving the way for the victory of storytelling as the most popular cinematic mode. Porter’s crude but nearly complete inventory of the impulses and tropes guiding the future feature film, especially the action film and Westerns, got a significant boost toward the end of the silent era, when John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1925) lent a monumental authenticity and an at times documentary quality to the Western myth of the railroad.

XII

The Western may have been the first genre to truly lay claim to the train as a key motif, but its applications have been endless, and we will have neither the time (to evoke the tight schedule that is another railway-film staple) nor sufficient reason to delve into all of them (just consider the lacuna left gaping by the terrible trains alluded to in Shoah [1985]). But allow me to quote just one paragraph from the press notes for a film series curated at MoMA in 1991, called Junction and Journey: Trains and Film:

Besides providing a setting for a story (as in Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express, 1974), the railroad in cinema represents the past (Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, 1952), the present (Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, 1941), the future (Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, 1955), and the past, present, and future all at once (Arthur Joffe’s Alberto Express, 1990). It can signify change on a national scale (Viktor Turin’s Turksib, 1929) and on a personal one (Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains, 1966), while expressing hope (Jacques Tourneur’s Berlin Express, 1948), rootlessness (Chantal Akerman’s Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, 1978), entrapment (Richard Fleischer’s 1952 version and Peter Hyams’s 1990 version of The Narrow Margin), and escape, both physical (Jan Němec’s Diamonds of the Night, 1964) and social (David Lean’s Brief Encounter, 1945). Train films explore the subjects of death (Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog, 1955) and life, both literally (Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, 1959) and metaphorically (Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, 1989).

In short: trains in cinema can mean pretty much anything to anyone at any time.

XIII

A bit after the halfway mark, around minute 11, Train Again seems to restart, albeit differently. Again, the train is coming out of the tunnel, as a spellbound audience stares on in counter-shot. It is worth noting that the auteur of the 22-second film-theory-pun found-footage Western Shot-Countershot (1987) has by now dissolved most notions of conventional editing into a form of action painting, taking up the baton of Kurt Kren’s experiments with rapid cuts and graphic matches but achieving more extreme collisions and interactions of images through his darkroom techniques. Thus, the now mostly horizontal flicker rush of his ecstatic train ride gives way to brief glimpses of early cinema, starting with the Lumières, of course: La sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon (1895, which was previously the subject of Tscherkassky’s 1984 study Motion Picture) is followed not by a train film, but by Le débarquement du congrès de photographie à Lyon (1895), perhaps to once more underline the parallel of the filmic train (of thought) to the photographic image.

Via early achievements like Billy Bitzer’s 1905 Interior N.Y. Subway, 14th St. to 42nd St. (sorry, Pelham-anians, no time for a subway digression) and The Great Train Robbery, Tscherkassky closes in on a prolonged tour of the “absolute film” of the 1920s, some of which he fêted in his earlier works: Man Ray, Viking Eggeling, Fernand Legér (and Dudley Murphy), Marcel Duchamp. Some of their film titles would fit Train Again well: e.g., Symphonie diagonale (1923), or Ballet mécanique (1924). After about three minutes, the sequence culminates with the unforgettable scene from Hans Richter’s Ghosts Before Breakfast (1928) in which four bowler hats fly off into the air in unison…

XIV

While the movies had instantly established a kinship with trains, they also became an important symbol for various currents of the modernist avant-garde of the 20th century. Obviously, a technology that typified speed and violence appealed to the Futurists, but many Surrealists were taken by it, too: just think of the train leaving the chimney in Magritte’s painting La durée poignardée, or Dalí’s late chef d’oeuvre La gare de Perpignan, named after the unremarkable train station revealed to him as the true centre of the universe in an ecstatic vision. Most remarkable, however, is the 1913 artists’ book La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, which pairs a poem by Blaise Cendrars with stencil print artwork by Sonia Delaunay-Terk. Beyond the book’s combination of text and (near-abstract) image, the poetry itself—about a train journey on the Trans-Siberian—employs cinematic means, foreshadowing the montage techniques theorized by Sergei Eisenstein, a great Cendrars admirer.

It would be Eisenstein’s former assistant Ilya Trauberg who would condense those theories into an assault of revolutionary metaphors for The Blue Express (1929), a train picture about class war that makes all subsequent attempts in that direction (cf. Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 Snowpiercer) look feeble. In the same year, Turksib built the bridge from The Iron Horse to Night Mail, eulogizing a step in the first Five-Year Plan that saw the inauguration of the cine-train as a means of revolutionary education for the entire Soviet Union—“the only network to connect all of it is the railway,” per Chris Marker’s Le train en marche (1971), a tribute to cine-train veteran Aleksandr Medvedkin. But while Train Again does channel some of the montage furor associated with Eisenstein or Dziga Vertov, Tscherkassky’s insistence on his connection to the proponents of the 1920s abstract film seems entirely more justified. Like Richter, he combines the practice of avant-garde filmmaking with its history and theory: of the many meanings of Tscherkassky’s title, the train could also refer to training, as in training the eye of the viewer (a modernist cause). And as Richter’s pioneering and educational book Film Enemies of Today, Film Friends of Tomorrow (1929) pointed out, the key to understanding film is rhythm, which is the first thing one associates with a train.

XV

From La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France:

“The train takes a perilous leap and lands upon its wheels
The train lands on its wheels
The train always lands on its wheels.”

XVI

…and all of a sudden, Hans Richter’s flying hats have transformed into a locomotive flying through the air. But rather than letting it crash-land, Tscherkassky pairs it via horizontal split screen with a mirror image flying back in time, inaugurating the last stretch of darkroom wizardry: an apocalyptic home run of trains barreling ahead on collision course, with Schaefer contributing a relentlessly gripping aural inferno of screeching brakes, roaring engines, and painful impacts over the breathless locomotive rhythm. The next four minutes are da capo virtuoso, as Tscherkassky escalates his explosive film-meets-train rampage into ever more impressive visual pile-ups, until—after a huge, almost literal burst—the film itself nearly vanishes, leaving only murky patterns on a field more dark than light, although there are some spectators visible momentarily. Near the end, the film gets back on track and a bridge emerges, which, as we know from many train films, may be a sign of heavenly rescue or prove to be the gate to hell.

Most of the found footage for this furioso finale comes from Unstoppable, whose sparks-of-metal/grains-of-wheat-besotted climax (in itself full of moments that approach near-painterly abstraction) proves particularly fruitful for Tscherkassky’s purposes, although there is also some more The Lone Ranger in there. The ambivalence of the Tscherkassky project comes out particularly strongly here. Although still printed on film, this found footage is from a world in which cinematic images can be digitally created and altered at will; and, shadowed by that knowledge, elements of that final abstract segment, albeit achieved chemically, sometimes look a bit (but not exactly) like patterns that might be created digitally.

While Train Again is another battle cry for the fragile and ferocious possibilities of analogue cinema—at this year’s Cannes, it was reportedly the only 35mm projection—Tscherkassky can’t help but acknowledge the digital nature of the material he works with. While Unstoppable was in itself remarkable for retaining some real-world weight in these virtual times, the image of the flying locomotive from The Lone Ranger has little to do with actual physics, only with the cinematic hyperbole that has increasingly come to replace it. Just compare that fantastic image with the in-retrospect rather unimpressive thud of silent cinema’s most expensive shot: the train sent over a bridge by Buster Keaton for The General (1926).

XVII

Jean Renoir, speaking of La bête humaine (1938) in his autobiography, happy that he fought to shoot on real trains instead of using allegedly perfect mock-ups: “I was unshakable in my belief in the influence of the setting on the actors, and fortunately I won the day. Gabin and Carette could never have played so realistically in front of an artificial background, if only because the very noise forced them to communicate by means of gestures.”

Gore Verbinski, in an interview about The Lone Ranger: “Actors act differently when they’re acting on top of a moving train than when they’re standing in front of a bluescreen. Trying to get honesty in there was important, to not let it become theatrical or syrupy or overly beautiful. You have to go in and embrace the elements.”

Although it was clear that much digital “enhancement” would take place, Verbinski declared a “50-percent rule:” to keep the film grounded, at least half of the action on the screen should be kept as shot, even for the extensive train finale. An insider report at Digital Trends later took the tally: “95 percent of what you see on the screen was added digitally.”

XVIII

The last 90 seconds of Train Again show the train emerging again after all the ruckus. Two people with suitcases watch it pass, then step on to the embankment, looking in the direction where it headed. In the next shot the train is chugging by close to the camera, which pans to watch it head off into the distance. Fade out. Over a black screen, the words “In memoriam Kurt Kren” appear, followed by a shot that makes me shed a tear every time: a tree on a field, the wind moving its branches. It is not from 37/78 Tree Again, but it is unmistakable enough in its evocation of a film that readjusted the passage of time into an experience only possible through film. Its succession of single frames of the present moment, caught as if time were out of joint, shows the world in constant flux, and thus grants us a glimpse of eternity, or at least of eternal return.

XIX

From La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France:

“And this night is like a hundred thousand others when a train threads the night.”

XX

After the credits of Train Again, the train keeps on rolling.

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