DDBspotlight: Cinema – About Dark Chambers, Magic Lanterns and the Fascination of Moving Images

By Theresa Rodewald (Online Editor)

"Last night I was in the kingdom of shadows," writes Russian novelist Maxim Gorky after his first visit to the cinema in 1896. He isn't convinced, though: everything is gray, the leaves on the trees, the faces of the people, the sky and even the rays of the sun. "It is not life, but its shadows (...), a soundless spectre." Over the next decades, however, this soundless spectre becomes the entertainment medium par excellence. People gather first at fairs and later in movie theaters to admire moving images.

Today, movies, series and videos are just a click or swipe away - we watch them on cell phones, computers, TV screens. The film industry and cinema operators are worried about the future of cinema - and that not just since the Corona pandemic. Still, when movie theaters were forced to close for months during the height of the pandemic, it also became clear that movies feel different without an audience, and the home viewing experience is different from that in a movie theater. But what is it that makes the cinematic experience so special?

The cinema – closed indefinitely: “Redevelopment of the Bülowplatz surroundings (Scheunenviertel), Berlin. Babylon Cinema and residential buildings: Block 14 cinema, auditorium, view from the stalls to the stage” (1927-1929), Architekturmuseum der Technischen Universität Berlin (Architecture Museum of the Technical University Berlin) (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

A look back into the past shows that the history of the cinema is not only about how the pictures learned to move. The technical and visual pioneers of the film not only set pictures in motion, but also had the aim to show them to a large number of people. The history of the cinema is, above all, also the history of wanting to watch together as a communal experience.

Light and shadow: The camera of the Stone Age and the camera obscura

The history of a visit to the cinema presumably began in the Stone Age. Prehistoric cave paintings used irregularities and protrusions in the walls of the caves, together with the interplay of light and shadow, to create dynamics and the illusion of movement. We also assume today that forms of shadow play theatres already existed in prehistoric times. This doesn’t have much to do with the cinema of today, but does, however relate to the fascination of dynamic pictures and motion.

Explained and set in scene: “Creation of an image of an illustrated object through a small hole onto a projection surface, the principle of the camera obscura” (16./17th century) SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

The principle of the camera obscura was possibly also known in the Stone Age and was used for cave paintings. For when light shines through a small hole into a dark room, there naturally occurs a projection of the outside world. The camera obscura has been known since Antiquity and was used, above all, by astronomers to observe the sun. In the Renaissance, portable versions equipped with a lens for a better picture became very popular as drawing aids. Giambattista della Porta, whose work “Magiae naturalis” contributed to the popularity of the pinhole camera, already recognised the camera obscura’s potential for amusement. He didn’t want to deprive his readers of the fact, “that one sees a picture floating in a room in the dark of night, which almost frightens the viewers because they cannot know how this or that ghost appears to them, so to speak”. Detailed instructions for conjuring up just this ghost then follow.

Drawing aid and device for conjuring up ghosts: “Camera Obscura (replica)” (Replica of a camera obscura from 1770), Ernst-Haeckel-Haus Jena (CC BY-SA 4.0 International)

Special effects and horror stories: The magic lantern (laterna magica)

The magic lantern performances of the 18th and 19th centuries provided horror stories on a grand scale. For the so-called phantasmagoria, pictures were projected onto stage fog, which created an illusion of floating ghostly apparitions and which earned the magic lantern the nickname of the “lantern of horrors”.

A group of elegant people enjoys watching the spooky spectacle of witches riding to their Sabbath: “A magic lantern presentation” (probably 1760-1770), Freies Deutsches Hochstift / Frankfurter Goethe-Museum, photo: David Hall (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International)

In contrast to the camera obscura, the magic lantern could project pictures. There is a light source inside the magical lantern and a mirror, which reflects the light to the outside via a lens. Glass slides were inserted between the lens and the case and thus projected onto a wall, for example.

Predecessor of the film projector: “Magic lantern (projector with accessories)” (Beginning of 20th century), Dorfmuseum Schönwalde (Schönwalde Village Museum) (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 Germany)

That, however, wasn’t all: pictures could be made to move with the magic lantern. To achieve this, the arms and legs of a figure were painted onto a separate piece of glass, for example, and then moved onto the original glass picture. Alternatively, the whole magic lantern could be moved, similar to a tracking shot.

Projection pictures for the magic lantern with bible motifs: the Angel of the Annunciation (middle) could be inserted in front of the picture of the shepherds (left) for a joint projection: “Projection picture” (around 1900), Heimatmuseum Quierschied (Quierschied Museum of Local History) (CC BY-SA 4.0 International)

Several glass slides were projected at the same time for cross-fades or dissolving views, whereby, for example, the changing of the seasons could be dynamically portrayed. Many techniques and special effects associated with films today already existed therefore at the time of the magic lantern, independent of photography and electricity.

As in the cinema programme of the present day, spectacular or horror stories were especially popular. Performances accompanied by music and narrative texts took place at fairs and were carried out by travelling showmen.

Travelling in the mind: From peep box to panorama

Besides the magic lantern, the peep box with its optical illusions and deep spatial views is considered to be one of the first mass media. Copperplate prints and lithographs of far-away cities and countries or biblical stories enjoyed great popularity and, as in the magic lantern performances, were often accompanied by a narrative. In addition, many of the scenes portrayed also had the character of news and depicted great battles and sensational maritime disasters.

A pleasure for the whole family: “The peep box” (1800-1900), Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel (Herzog August Library Wolfenbüttel) (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International)

This desire to view, the travelling in the mind and the hunger for pictures continued in the panorama in the course of the 19th century. As an oversized 360 degree painting, the panorama was, so to say, a walk-through peep box. Visitors reached the middle of the panorama through a dark corridor; the picture took up the whole of the interior and thus the illusion was created of standing in a painted reality. As with the peep box, it was frequently views of cities or battles that were portrayed.

Those for whom a panorama was not exciting enough, could look at a diorama from the 1820s onwards, which additionally suggested the illusion of movement or the changing of the times of day and seasons.

In the Berlin Diorama, which opened in 1829, the public could look at illuminated transparent pictures with views from all around the world: “The Diorama in Berlin” (1830 – 1831), Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Art Library, National Museums in Berlin) (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 Germany)

Innovations running continuously: From Thaumatrope to Zoetrope

The viewing pleasure from the magic lantern up to the diorama was therefore never completely static. Nevertheless, inventions around moving pictures followed in quick succession from the middle of the 19th century onwards. This was the time of devices with fantastic names like thaumatrope, phenakistiscope or zoetrope. These names were inspired by Ancient Greek and serve as a reminder that both, the thirst for knowledge and the desire to watch, characterise the history of optical mass media as two sides of the same coin. From the magic lantern to the zoetrope, these devices were developed in the course of scientific experiments and then found their way into the emerging entertainment industry.

Optical experiment and toy: “Picture viewer ‘praxinoscope’” (around 1879), Otto-Lilienthal-Museum, photo: Matthias Gühlke (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International)

There have been presentations, effects and narratives similar to the cinematic experience since at least the 18th century. What was still missing to the cinema in the middle of the 19th century was the lifelike simulation of movement. As with the later film projector, phenakistiscope and zoetrope made use of the so-called stroboscope effect. Here the individual pictures are separated by narrow slits. When the running wheel or the magic drum is set in motion, the impression of fluid movement arises from the short interruption of the sequence of pictures.

As if you had been there yourself: Stereo photo “Neuschwanstein Castle. South facade during its construction” (1891), reproduction (1998) according to a positive image, SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

Predecessor of 3D films : The Kaiserpanorama

The phenakistiscope and the zoetrope were, above all, for home entertainment. But moving pictures also found a home in variety shows and at fairs. The mutoscope, for example, which was started by inserting a coin, provided the attraction of a flip-book presentation. In contrast to the cinema, the viewing pleasure here was reserved for only one person and showmen managed by setting up several mutoscopes next to one another.

Stereoscopic pictures made travel photography even more vivid: “Stereoscope” (from 1911 onwards), TECHNOSEUM Landesmuseum für Technik und Arbeit in Mannheim (State Museum of Technology and Work in Mannheim) (CC0 1.0 Universal - Public Domain Dedication)

The “Kaiserpanorama”, which pre-empted the 3D film in a special way in the 1890s, also provided a similar solution for this reception problem. Up to 25 people watched stereoscopic pictures at the same time. The Kaiserpanorama was arranged as a circle, around which the visitors took their places and then peered individually through their peepholes. The stereoscopic pictures suggested the impression of spatial depth, which arose from the fact that the right and left eyes each saw slightly differing pictures. From 1838 onwards, the stereoscope made it possible to view such double pictures by means of two mirrors, an effect which the Kaiserpanorama also made use of. Series of pictures circulated for about half an hour and also primarily showed travel destinations, places of interest and landscape photographs here. The viewing experience of the Kaiserpanorama was different from that of the cinema, insofar as the pictures are not projected, but are viewed through peepholes.

What there is to see here? The King of England’s ceremonial entry into Berlin! “Kaiserpanorama. Stereoscopic device for the projecting and viewing of hand-coloured glass slide positives with the format 8.5 x 17.0 cm. 25 places, each with its own gas glow-lamp” (1913), Oscar Meister, SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

The all-in-one solution: The Lumière cinematograph

At the end of the 19th century, the cinema therefore, was already on the horizon. In 1887 Ottomar Anschütz presented his quick-viewer, which was also known by the fine name electrotachyscope. With this, individual photographs were illuminated one after the other by a stroboscopic light and could be viewed through a viewing slit, but again only by one person. From 1893 onwards, a running short film, respectively a scene, could be admired through the peephole in Edison’s kinetoscope. Basically, all that was missing from a cinematic experience was the projection of films. This step was then taken with the cinematograph of the Lumière brothers. They presented their device, which was a camera, photocopier and projector all at the same time, to the public in Paris on 28th December 1895, a date which today is generally accepted to be the birth of the cinema.

Not a Lumière, but a Bauer. Eugen Bauer supplied the cinema business with film projectors in Wuerttemberg: “Bauer 1” (around 1910), TECHNOSEUM Landesmuseum für Technik und Arbeit in Mannheim (State Museum of Technology and Work in Mannheim) (CC0 1.0 Universal - Public Domain Dedication)

As was previously the case with the magic lantern, peep boxes and the mutoscope, travelling cinemas toured the country as attractions at fairs, before they settled down in set places from 1905 onwards. Films became longer and their narratives more complex. Assembly techniques emerged which told an ongoing story in several settings and sequences. The cinema began to develop its own language and increasingly replaced the magic lantern performances, panoramas and mutoscopes of the 19th century. It was not only technical innovations and a fascinated audience which were important for the success of the cinema, but also economic considerations. Considerably more spectators could watch a projected film at the same time than, for example, the stereoscopic pictures of the Kaiserpanorama. More spectators meant more tickets sold, which also gave the film a financial advantage over its predecessors.

More than the sum of its parts: “Illuminated letters KINO“ (cinema) (1970s), Museum Tuch + Technik (Cloth and Technology Textile Museum) (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 Germany)

What makes a visit to the cinema special?

The cinema is part of the entertainment industry, art, stories and a communal experience. And perhaps that’s what it’s all about: to watch a film together without having to directly talk about it. The fascination of optical illusions, moving pictures and projected pictures is emotional, primordial and direct. In this sense, a visit to the cinema is both a personal and a collective experience: viewers are separated from one another in the darkness, their eyes are focused on the screen and, despite this, the reaction of the other people is part of the individual viewing experience. The audience is connected via the film: at the best of times, the latter creates a sense of belonging which can only arise together and on site in the cinema. This special connection of solitude and companionship is central to the cinematic experience: this is missing in the home cinema and therefore is an argument against the imminent death of the cinema. Moreover, a look at the history of the predecessors and pioneers of this paradoxical amusement shows that the cinema was always on the move and finds its way.

Our virtual exhibition on the topic cinema and the First World War tells how things progressed for the cinema after the Lumières.

There are more magic lanterns, peep boxes, stereoscope pictures und film projectors in the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek (German Digital Library).

Sources and links

Frankfurter Rundschau: https://www.fr.de/wissen/kino-steinzeit-11389193.html

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precursors_of_film

Deutsches Filminstitut & Filmmuseum (DFF):




Kiel University's Film Encyclopedia:

Magic Lantern: https://filmlexikon.uni-kiel.de/index.php?action=lexikon&tag=det&id=783

Stereoskop: https://filmlexikon.uni-kiel.de/index.php?action=lexikon&tag=det&id=898

Mutoskop:  https://filmlexikon.uni-kiel.de/index.php?action=lexikon&tag=det&id=6432

Kinetoskop: https://filmlexikon.uni-kiel.de/index.php?action=lexikon&tag=det&id=2042

Camera Obsucra at Städel Museum: https://blog.staedelmuseum.de/techniken-der-fotografie-die-camera-obscura-teil-210/

Guckkasten at Tagesspiegel: https://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/der-guckkastenmann-das-aelteste-fernsehen-der-welt/239526.html

Diorama at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt: https://www.schirn.de/magazin/kontext/diorama/diorama_erfindung_einer_illusion_ausstellung_frankfurt/

Kaiserpanorama beim Stadtmuseum Berlin: https://www.stadtmuseum.de/ausstellungen/kaiserpanorama und bei https://www.kaiser-panorama.de/rubin/kaiserpanorama.html

Mit Bastelanleitung:

Wunderscheibe/Thaumatrop at DFF:  https://www.dff.film/basteltipp-thaumatrop/

Wundertrommel/ Zoetrop at DFF:  https://www.dff.film/basteltipp-wundertrommel/

Phenakistiskop/Lebensrad at WDR: https://kinder.wdr.de/tv/wissen-macht-ah/bibliothek/dasfamoseexperiment/phenakistiskop-100.html