It would have scandalized many an American filmgoer of the mid-twentieth century to learn that the movies they watched — even the most wholesome Hollywood fare of the era — made extensive use of a Soviet invention. What’s more, that invention came out of the very revolution that put the Communists in power, after which the Soviet government “took a strong interest in film, because it recognized cinema for what it was — a powerful tool for social and political influence.” So says Craig Benzine, host of Crash Course Film History, in the series’ eighth self-contained episode, “Soviet Montage,” which tells the story of that cinema-changing editing technique.
The government understood, in other words, the power of cinema as propaganda, and swiftly centralized the film industry. But after the Russian Revolution, which put an end to the importation of film stock, Russian filmmakers couldn’t shoot a frame. So while the nation built up the industrial capacity to produce film stock domestically, these filmmakers — much like the video essayists on the internet today — studied existing films, breaking them down, reassembling them, and figuring out how they worked.
In this way, filmmaker Lev Kuleshov defined the “Kuleshov effect,” explained by Benzine as the phenomenon whereby “viewers draw more meaning from two shots cut together than either shot on its own,” and different combinations of shots produce vastly different intellectual and emotional effects in those viewers.
When they finally got some film stock, Soviet montage filmmakers, who had come to believe that “for film to reach its true potential, the cuts themselves should be visible, the audience should be aware of them, the illusion should be obviously constructed and not hidden,” got to work making movies that demonstrated their ideas. They saw themselves as engineers, “joining shots the way a bricklayer builds a wall or a factory worker assembles a vehicle,“and Benzine examines sequences from two of the best-known fruits of these labors, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Dziga Vertov’s A Man with a Movie Camera (both of which you can watch free online by following those links).
Benzine also looks to more recent examples of Soviet montage theory in practice in everything from Dumbledore’s death in the Harry Potter movies to the shower scene in Psycho (a film by an avowed fan of the Kuleshov effect) to the final standoff in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. For more on the mechanics of Soviet montage, have a look at the fifteen-minute explainer from Filmmaker IQ above — or pay close attention to most any movie or television show or music video made over the past eighty years. The ideological climate that gave rise to Soviet montage theory may have changed, but the artistic principles its filmmakers discovered will, for the foreseeable future, hold true, underscoring the reliable effectiveness and surprising power of the simple cut.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.