A Visual Introduction to Soviet Montage Theory: A Revolution in Filmmaking

Between 1908 and 1913, Amer­i­can film­mak­er D. W. Grif­fith made over 400 movies. Over that time, he, along with his fel­low Hol­ly­wood direc­tors, devel­oped con­ti­nu­ity edit­ing. Using such tools as match­ing eye­lines – cut­ting so that the actors appear to be look­ing at each oth­er across dif­fer­ent shots – and the 180-degree rule – which keeps the actors from switch­ing places on the screen – Grif­fith and his cohorts cre­at­ed a visu­al gram­mar that let audi­ences for­get the film’s arti­fice and dis­ap­pear into the sto­ry. By the time Grif­fith released his huge­ly influ­en­tial (and huge­ly racist) mas­ter­work A Birth of A Nation in 1915, the rules of con­ti­nu­ity edit­ing had more or less been worked out. This form of sto­ry­telling was so suc­cess­ful, and prof­itable, that it has been used for just about every Hol­ly­wood movie that has come out since.

Yet just as these rules were being cod­i­fied, film­mak­ers, most­ly Euro­pean, looked for oth­er ways to tell a sto­ry. Ger­man direc­tors like F. W. Mur­nau and Robert Wiene exper­i­ment­ed with cin­e­mat­ic depic­tions of the sub­con­scious. French film­mak­ers like René Clair used cam­era tricks and odd fram­ing to cre­ate works of for­mal beau­ty. But it was the film­mak­ers in the new­ly formed Sovi­et Union that real­ly con­tributed a new way of think­ing about film – Sovi­et Mon­tage. You can watch a video about it above.

When the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion washed over the coun­try, the num­ber of films in the USSR dried up. One of the few movies avail­able at VGIK, aka The Moscow Film School, was Griffith’s sprawl­ing Intol­er­ance (watch it online here). Lev Kuleshov, a young teacher there, start­ed to take apart the movie and reorder the images. He dis­cov­ered that the mean­ing of a scene was rad­i­cal­ly changed depend­ing on the order of the shots. This led Kuleshov to try an exper­i­ment: he jux­ta­posed the image of a man with a blank expres­sion with a bowl of soup, a young corpse in a cof­fin and a pret­ty girl. You can watch it below.

Invari­ably, audi­ences praised the actor for his sub­tle­ty of per­for­mance. Of course, there was no per­for­mance. The con­nec­tion between the two images was made entire­ly with­in the head of the view­er. This real­iza­tion would for­ev­er be com­mem­o­rat­ed in film schools every­where as the Kuleshov Effect.

Using the French word for assem­ble, Kuleshov called this “mon­tage.” At the school, how­ev­er, there was con­sid­er­able debate over what mon­tage exact­ly was. One of Kuleshov’s stu­dents, Vsevolod Pudovkin envi­sioned each shot as a brick, one small part that togeth­er with oth­er small parts cre­at­ed a cin­e­mat­ic edi­fice.

Anoth­er stu­dent, Sergei Eisen­stein, pro­posed a far more dynam­ic, and rev­o­lu­tion­ary, form of mon­tage. Eisen­stein saw it “as an idea that aris­es from the col­li­sion of inde­pen­dent shots.” An intel­lec­tu­al well versed in the­o­ry, Eisen­stein com­pared mon­tage to Karl Marx’s vision of his­to­ry where a the­sis smash­es into its antithe­sis and togeth­er, from that wreck­age, forms its syn­the­sis.

Eisenstein’s great­est exam­ple of mon­tage, and indeed one of the great­est exam­ples of film­mak­ing ever, is the Odessa Steps scene from his mas­ter­piece Bat­tle­ship Potemkin. In it, Czarist sol­diers mas­sacre a group of pro­tes­tors, most­ly women and chil­dren. You can watch it below.

As you can see, it’s a pow­er­ful piece of pro­pa­gan­da. There is no way to come away from this movie and not feel like the Czarists are any­thing but mur­der­ous vil­lains. (Nev­er­mind that the movie is wild­ly inac­cu­rate, his­tor­i­cal­ly speak­ing.) Shots of a griev­ing moth­er jux­ta­posed with images of bay­o­net wield­ing troops result in a sur­pris­ing­ly vis­cer­al feel­ing of injus­tice.

In his writ­ings, Eisen­stein out­lined the vary­ing types of mon­tage – five kinds in all. The most impor­tant, in his eyes, was intel­lec­tu­al mon­tage – a method of plac­ing images togeth­er in a way to evoke intel­lec­tu­al con­cepts. He was inspired by how Japan­ese and Chi­nese can cre­ate abstract ideas from con­crete pic­tograms. For exam­ple, the Japan­ese sym­bol for tree is 木. One char­ac­ter for wall is 囗. Put the two togeth­er, 困, and you have the char­ac­ter for trou­ble, because hav­ing a tree in your wall is cer­tain­ly a huge pain in the ass. You can see an exam­ple of intel­lec­tu­al mon­tage in the end of the Odessa steps sequence when a stone lion seem­ing­ly ris­es to his feet.

Eisen­stein decid­ed to push this idea to the lim­it with his fol­low up, Octo­ber. The movie is deeply strange to watch now. In one famous sequence, Eisen­stein com­pares White Russ­ian gen­er­al Alexan­der Keren­sky to a pea­cock and to a cheap Napoleon fig­urine. It’s proved to be an inter­est­ing intel­lec­tu­al exer­cise but one that left audi­ences, both then and now baf­fled.

And below is anoth­er, slight­ly fun­nier, cer­tain­ly more con­tem­po­rary, exam­ple of intel­lec­tu­al mon­tage.

Many of the land­mark films men­tioned above can be found in our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hitch­cock on the Filmmaker’s Essen­tial Tool: The Kuleshov Effect

Watch Bat­tle­ship Potemkin and Oth­er Free Sergei Eisen­stein Films

Jean-Luc Godard’s After-Shave Com­mer­cial for Schick

Watch Ten of the Great­est Silent Films of All Time — All Free Online

The Film­mak­ing of Susan Son­tag & Her 50 Favorite Films (1977)

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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