1896 | Nizhny Novgorod

Life Devoid of Words

Maxim Gorky witnesses the dawn of film.

Yesterday I was in the kingdom of the shadows.

If only you knew how strange it is to be there. There are no sounds, no colors. There, everything—the earth, the trees, the people, the water, the air—is tinted in a gray monotone: in a gray sky there are gray rays of sunlight; in gray faces, gray eyes, and the leaves of the trees are gray like ashes. This is not life but the shadow of life, and this is not movement but the soundless shadow of movement.

I must explain, lest I be suspected of symbolism or madness. I was at Aumont’s cafe and I was watching the Lumières’ cinematograph—moving photographs. The impression it produced was so unusual, so original and complex, that I can hardly convey it in all its nuances.

When the lights go out in the room in which the Lumières’ invention is being shown, a large gray picture suddenly appears on the screen: it is “A Paris Street,” the shadow of a bad engraving. As you gaze at it, you see carriages, buildings, and people in various poses, all of them frozen into immobility. All this is in gray, and the sky above is also gray. You do not expect anything new in this all-too-familiar scene because you have seen pictures of Paris streets many times. But suddenly a strange flicker passes across the screen and the picture comes to life. Carriages come from the back of the picture toward you, straight toward you, into the darkness where you are sitting. From somewhere in the distance people appear, looming larger as they approach you. In the foreground there are children playing with a dog, cyclists rushing around, and pedestrians crossing the street, picking their way among the carriages. It is all moving, all alive, all speeding about.

Nowadays three witty turns of phrase and a lie make a writer.

—G.C. Lichtenberg, 1780

All this happens in a strange silence in which you cannot hear the rumble of wheels, the sound of footsteps or of speech. There is nothing, not a single note of the intricate symphony that usually accompanies people’s movements. Silently the ash-gray foliage of the trees sways in the wind, and the gray silhouettes of the people glide silently along the gray ground as if condemned to eternal silence and cruelly punished by being deprived of all life’s colors.

Their smiles are lifeless, although their movements are full of living energy and are so swift as to be almost imperceptible. Their laughter is silent, although you see the muscles contracting in their gray faces. Before you a life surges, a life devoid of words and shorn of the living spectrum of colors, a gray, silent, bleak, and dismal life.

It is terrifying to watch but it is the movement of shadows, mere shadows. Curses and ghosts, evil spirits that have cast whole cities into eternal sleep come to mind, and you feel as though Merlin’s vicious trick is being played out before you. It is as if he had cast a spell over the entire street, compressing its multistoried buildings from their rooftops to their foundations to minute size. He has compressed the people to correspond, depriving them of the power of speech and merging all the colors of the earth and the sky into a monotonous gray.

Suddenly there is a click, everything vanishes, and a railway train appears on the screen. It darts like an arrow straight toward you—watch out! It seems as though it is about to rush into the darkness where you are sitting and reduce you to a mangled sack of skin, full of crumpled flesh and splintered bones, and destroy this hall and this building, so full of wine, women, music, and vice, and transform it into fragments and into dust.

But this, too, is merely a train of shadows.


Maxim Gorky

From “The Lumière Cinematograph.” Orphaned at a young age, the author was sent to find work at the age of eight and was beaten by many of his employers. His experiences provided him the settings for various early works and led him to change his name from Peshkov to Gorky, meaning “bitter.”