A Crash Course on Soviet Montage, the Russian Approach to Filmmaking That Revolutionized Cinema

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

Watch Bat­tle­ship Potemkin and Oth­er Free Sergei Eisen­stein Films

Free: Dzi­ga Vertov’s A Man with a Movie Cam­era, the 8th Best Film Ever Made

Take a 16-Week Crash Course on the His­to­ry of Movies: From the First Mov­ing Pic­tures to the Rise of Mul­ti­plex­es & Net­flix

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.

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