Original Essay by an Anonymous Institute Member
|A still from L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, in which Le Chapeau is clearly visible, slightly right of the center.|
Paris, January 25th, 1946. Despite the frigid winter, a line has formed outside the Le Champo cinema. France still holds fresh wounds from Nazi occupation, but on that night, cinephiles from around the nation gathered to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most iconic pieces of cinema history: the screening of the Lumière brother’s L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat. The film is scarcely fifty seconds long and is nothing more than footage of a train arriving at a station, but it was one of the first widely-known pieces of Cinématographie in the world. While the Lumière brothers themselves did not attend, eleven of audience members from the original screening of L'arrivée d'un train were present. The oldest was eighty-five-year-old Jacques Masson; the youngest, sixty-two-year-old Claude Morel.
After a speaker gives a brief history on the Lumière brothers and their accomplishments, as well as how cinema has developed since the screening of this film, the lights dim, and the projectionist begins the film. To some, it’s an experience just as magical as when the film was first screened; some have not seen a movie since before France was liberated. There are some in the audience who are too young to remember films that weren’t some form of Nazi propaganda. They are watching the earliest form of cinema, but it is still something magical: moving pictures on screen.
Among the eleven original audience members, however, there’s confusion. Masson is heard muttering that ‘something isn’t right’. Then, at approximately thirty-five seconds into the film, Morel stands, points at the screen, and screams:
“Who is that man?!”
The figure that caused the panic is first visible at approximately 0:24, and vanishes at 0:36. It is a man wearing a boater hat, the top half of their face covered in shadow. They are wearing a dark suit with a white shirt visible beneath. At 0:34, they appear to look directly at the camera, before walking off-frame.
Several witnesses to previous screenings of L'arrivée d'un train corroborate that this figure was not in the film prior to 1935, but their presence is not made explicit until 1946. That was eleven years wherein this figure (termed “L’homme au chapeau”, or simply “Le Chapeau”, after their distinctive hat) could have been inserted into the film. Who are they? And how did this happen?
There are three prevailing theories: the first was published in 1946 by members of La Société des Anomalies Cinématographiques, and is sometimes called the ‘French Hypothesis’; the second was put forth in 1982 by film historian Hubert Pfenning, or the ‘German Hypothesis’; the final, from 2019, was created by Institute members.
The French Hypothesis
La Société des Anomalies Cinématographiques was founded in 1941 as an unofficial part of the French Resistance, following the discovery of the film Bergenkreiger(1940), a German fantasy propaganda film that was essentially an unauthorized Conan the Barbarian adaptation. After the slaughter of seventeen Nazi soldiers at its initial screening in Paris, it was stolen by the French projectionist and studied. By 1942, the anomalous copy of Bergenkreiger was destroyed by the same anomalous entity which caused the initial deaths. La Sociétié would term this being, and others like it, cinemanauts.
La Sociétié was around in a reduced capacity after World War II, and several members of it investigated Le Chapeau. They concluded that Le Chapeau was a cinemanaut, someone who had managed to jump from our reality into the film for reasons unknown. They even attempted to attach a name to the face: Gustav Ablin, a student of film who went missing shortly after the establishment of Vichy France. He was in the process of restoring a print of L'arrivée d'un train when the Nazi invasion began, and was said to be highly stressed by the events, before he simply vanished.
The who and why were explained, but not the how. But for the purposes of La Sociétié, this was enough, and was the accepted theory for almost forty years.
The German Hypothesis
Hubert Pfenning (b. 1951) is one of the leading experts on so-called Okkulteskino. Sadly, the most prominence granted by his research has been four appearances on the Nova Network’s Strange Pictures, where he was forced to debate the veracity of the Lassiter Hotel Footage twice.
In 1982, Pfenning managed to obtain a print of Arrival of a Train in which Le Chapeau is absent, dated to 1942, a year after Albin’s disappearance. Travel performed by cinemanauts instantly affects the media they travel into or out of, so this narrowed the timeline in which L'arrivée d'un train could have been affected from over a decade to four years.
He formed a new hypothesis, one that was dismissed as laughable at the time, but gained renewed interest in the mid-2000s: that Le Chapeau was not a French citizen, but a German spy. Specifically, Le Chapeau was Hugo Lorenz, a German cryptographer that had been researching how to encode messages into cinema to spread to Nazi spies in allied territories. Lorenz came to the conclusion that films depicted alternate realities, and that if need be, members of the Nazi party could flee into film as either a temporary or permanent refuge.
Lorenz disappeared following the Liberation of France in 1944, and was last seen purchasing a boater hat from a boutique in Marseille.
But there is a problem with both of these hypotheses that came to light in 2019.
The Institute’s Hypothesis
Neither Gustav Albin nor Hugo Lorenz could possibly be Le Chapeaufor one reason: by the time of Le Chapeau’s appearance in L'arrivée d'un train, both of them were dead.
In 1952, a skeleton was discovered in the river Seine in Paris, just beneath a bridge. It was wearing a pair of pants whose pockets were filled with rocks, and near it was found a small glass jar, still sealed, containing a piece of paper and several film negatives:
The Germans will burn our country to the ground. I cannot bear to live in a France ruled by Hitler. I am sorry, mother. G. Albin, July 1940.
The negatives, when developed, showed Albin spending time with his family in London.
As for Hugo Lorenz, records from the Nazi party itself show that Lorenz died in 1942. He suffocated on fumes from an incinerator where he was burning unusable and damaged film. This was not publicly known until the declassification of Operation Stone Soup in 2019; Stone Soup was an effort by the United States to recruit Nazi filmmakers and propagandists in order to bolster their own anti-communist propaganda during the Cold War, and describes Lorenz’s death as ‘the unfortunate loss of a valuable asset’.
That leaves the question: who is Le Chapeau? The answer can be found by looking elsewhere in the history of not just film, but media itself.
On at least six occasions, screenings of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis have had a scene in which the inventor Rotwang shows Fredersen his Maschinenmensch is interrupted by a man in a boater hat walking through the laboratory. Rotwang and Fredersen stare at the man as he walks past, before the plot resumes its normal course.
Approximately eighty first edition copies of Italo Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveler contain a passage during one of the second-person sections where the character of Ludmilla is accosted by a man in a dark suit wearing a boater hat; this is not referenced for the rest of the work.
It has been purported that approximately one in every thousand copies of issue fourteen of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman have an inexplicable page-wide spread depicting a man in a dark suit wearing a boater hat; these are not present in any omnibus collection.
The Institute believes that Le Chapeau is not, and was never, a human, and is not any form of cinemanaut. They are an entity which is capable of ‘walking’ through film, literature, art… most forms of media have been visited by Le Chapeau, and it leaves evidence of its presence. We do not know its motives, and there seems to be no discernible pattern of its movements. It is believed to be harmless to humans, but Le Chapeau’s presence may be startling. To date, it is only responsible for a single death.
Jacques Masson, upon seeing Le Chapeau on screen on that fateful night in January, suffered a fatal heart attack. If reports are to be believed, a man with a boater hat was seen at his funeral six days later.