The longest tracking shot ever

by Brooks Riley

ScreenHunter_1084 Mar. 16 12.05I didn’t buy popcorn, but I got a good seat—a window seat in an arrangement of four seats around a table. The window was large and wide, like a movie screen, and low enough to allow a comfortable view of the passing landscape, from track to sky. The train, a sleek white ICE or Inter City Express, was still idling under the roof of the terminal station, the kind that trains enter in one direction and exit in another. Sitting there in the semi-darkness, I was filled with anticipation. In moments, the train would start to move, nosing out from under the station roof into the daylight. The window would fill with light, and the shot would begin—the longest tracking shot ever

In my years as a film critic, I never made the connection between the tracking shot and trains. Just as most travelers consider a train to be little more than a means of going from point A to point B, I regarded the tracking shot as a means of going from point A to point B, extending the action, nothing more. And when the early film thinkers were tinkering with their theories on the new art form, movement was secondary to montage (Kuleshov, Pudovkin, Vertov and Eisenstein) or the close-up (Béla Balázs). Tracking shots were rare in the early days of cinema, the first one in 1912, in Oscar Apfel’s The Passer-by, followed in 1924 by F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (Der letzte Mann). Abel Gance, too, tracked about in Napoleon (1927), but in Gance’s piñata of cinematic devices, tracking shots hardly stood out from the other tricks of his trade exploding from the screen in that great epic film.

Trains of thought

Something happens to the brain confronted with a moving image. It’s probably also true in the cinema, although most tracking shots in a film are poor cousins of the variation seen out a train window. When we learn to walk, our peripheral vision is confronted with minor combinations of movement—the distant view moves by more slowly than the near view. But the variations of speed at a walking pace are so small that the ancient cerebral cortex knows how to incorporate these anomalies into a natural flow. In a high-speed train, however, the speed differentials are far greater, causing a constant onslaught of new images which are framed by the more static backgrounds of the distance—a kind of juxtaposed kinetic smorgasbord that keeps the cerebral machinery humming.

It took me years to understand the effect of this tracking shot. In my twenties, when I crisscrossed Europe on a Eurailpass, it was all about the view. Not knowing where my life was going, I dreamed of living in the houses that flew by, looking down at myself looking out of a kitchen window at the passing train. I ate up scenery like candy, gorging on vistas and panoramas, day-dreaming every kilometer like a Scheherazade with a thousand and one potential lives ahead of her.

Now I know that the view itself has little to do with my passion for train rides, although certain images can trigger a thought or train of thoughts that begin to accelerate within the brain itself.

I’m not the first one to do their best thinking on a train. Sometimes the effect is exogenous, prompted by something I see, but most of the time it’s endogenous, as though thinking itself were a form of movement dancing in tandem with the movement of the images in front of my eye.

I used to take books with me, or my laptop, with good intentions of losing myself in literary entertainments or getting work done. But nothing could tear me away from that window, that tracking shot. Being riveted to an ever-changing image is the crux of the cinematic experience. Content, however, plays a surprisingly small role in that window. Nothing happens out there but the seamless change in landscape close and far, as the multifarious speeds within a single image roll by.

But the mind races. New and bold ideas arise from nowhere, unbidden, as if by magic. And what of these sudden enlightenments? They often fade at the end of the journey–epiphanies without consequence. But not all. Like an afterimage, a thought might surface again at the mere memory of the journey gone by.

On this particular train ride to Berlin, a six-hour journey I already knew well, I decided to give my tracking shot a soundtrack. As the strains of Alexander Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy swelled over familiar landscapes with their reminders of Dürer (Nuremberg) here and Caspar David Friedrich (the Harz) there, I soon realized that the Romantics of the 19th century had been denied the ultimate Romantic experience, that of being able to fuse and infuse their Romantic imagery with music. A composer might have been able to play his own music internally to the passing scenes, but the average traveler of that time would have had to possess extraordinary musical memory to avail himself of this synthesis. Yet here I was, a late-blooming millennial with an I-pod, enjoying the extra dimensions of multi-sensual experience—emotion in motion.

After Scriabin, I switched to Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum, which endowed the passing scenes with an almost other-worldly blue aura. Even the Jena Paradies train station nearly lived up to its exalted name, the slanting sun in lento descent. I realized that music and moving imagery have not been fully exploited for their non-narrative collaborative power (a notable exception is Godfrey Reggio’s film Koyaanisqatsi with music by Philip Glass).

In spite of the visual and aural intoxication I was experiencing, I did see things, focusing in a way that a traveling camera could not:

A solitary swan nesting in the middle of a vast plowed field. What was she doing there? Did the furrows remind her of the waves on a lake?

A large white ostrich egg on the muddy banks of a small stream running by the tracks. Or was it plastic?

A pair of swans huddled in the corner of a rectangular pond.

The faded antique signpost on the platform in Probstzella, in a font developed for the Prussian Railway in the late 19th century.

An old factory on the banks of a small river—still for sale after all these years.

In Jena, I thought of Weimar, so near and yet so far. In Nuremberg, I thought of Dürer and Kaspar Hauser, and of the magical gaps (Schneise) in the neighboring forests

In Rudolstadt, I thought of Schiller who first met Goethe there.

And at times, the continuous, manicured hills of Thuringia behind so many of these forgotten towns just broke me down, their beauty like an exquisite burden, their permanence both reassuring and oppressive. Like all things timeless, they moved slowest in my tracking shot.

Berlin? That was just the end of the shot.