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

By Ted Mills

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.