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The Overlooked Genius of Soviet Montage Theory

ByReuben Bharucha

Mar 3, 2020

“Of all the arts the most important for us is cinema”, wrote Russian revolutionary and communist leader Vladimir Lenin in 1922, and he was correct. After seizing control of the largest country in the world, one of the top priorities for the Bolsheviks was conveying to a largely illiterate population just what Communism was. In such circumstances, there was no more effective way of spreading an ideology than through propaganda films. Thus, the Soviet Union founded the world’s first film-making school and young intellectuals soon began experimenting. One of these students was Lev Kuleshov (of the Kuleshov-effect fame) and one of his students was Sergei Eisenstein, who together are the fathers of Soviet Montage Theory, one of the most overlooked film movements in cinema.

First off, what is Soviet Montage Theory? Soviet Montage is all about the ‘cut’, the crucial moment when one shot transitions into another. It is the idea that the juxtaposition of one shot and another is what makes cinema, cinema. In the early days of the Soviet Union, there was no celluloid to be found, so students were forced to take film-prints and re-cut foreign films. As a result, (so the legend goes) they learned the power of the edit. The core of Soviet Montage is best expressed in the Kuleshov effect. Famously re-told by legendary director Alfred Hitchcock, the Kuleshov effect is the idea that the audience will create meaning in the juxtaposition of two shots that would not exist if the shots were viewed in isolation. To demonstrate this, Kuleshov showed a shot of a man and a bowl of soup to an audience. The audience was then shown the exact same shot of the man, followed by a coffin, and then the same shot followed by a woman. The audience interpreted the man’s expressions completely differently in each instance as hungry, mournful and desiring respectfully, simply based on what followed after the first shot.

But why is this important? Well, at the same time Kuleshov was experimenting in Moscow, in Hollywood, editing was all about continuity. You cut to demonstrate the progression of the story (from one scene or shot to the next) or for dramatic effect. They key thing was to ensure spatial and temporal continuity, so that the audience easily understood how each shot flowed to the next. Simplicity was the primary concern of mainstream Western film makers. However, the Soviets thought editing could be more.

Sergei Eisenstein formulated perhaps the most famous and fully-fledged version of Soviet Montage. His theory’s effectiveness is undeniable. Although virtually all his films fall into the category of propaganda (of the Soviet variety) they are nontheless remarkably powerful. Battleship Potemkin (1925), his most impactful film, represents perhaps the pinnacle of Eisenstein’s conception of Soviet Montage. Its dramatic Odessa steps sequence, arguably one of the most frequently imitated scenes in film history (from The Untouchables to The Naked Gun 33&1/3 to Star Wars Episode III), is a masterful example of how film can powerfully convey meaning.

Importantly though, Soviet Montage was theorised first and put into practise later. One such example of this is Eisenstein’s Oktabyr (1927), a film made to commemorate 10 years since the Bolshevik’s October Revolution. Whilst it contains some of the best examples of Intellectual Montage and contains powerful imagery, Oktabyr is a hard film to watch– often confusing, jarring and abstract, it watches like Nietzsche reads.

In his theory, Eisenstein classifies five methods of montage, the last of which is called “Intellectual Montage.” This is the most influential and important parts of his ideas. Intellectual Montage is the juxtaposition of two (or more) shots that when put together, produce an intellectual effect in the viewer – they convey an idea. It is pretty obvious that this is vital for a propaganda filmmaker. But the legacy of Intellectual Montage goes far beyond the films of the Soviet Union. It underlies the famous match-cut from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the ending ofApocalypse Now, certain sequences from Call Me By Your Name, the train and tunnel at the end of North By Northwestand countless other examples whereby merely transitioning from one shot to another can have a deep, profound impact on the audience.

But arguably, Eisenstein’s greatest legacy is a different one. In Soviet Montage Theory, conventions of space and time that were rigid rules in Western Cinema right up until the New Hollywood Movement, were thrown out of the window. Instead of prioritising ease of understanding, Eisenstein considered meaning paramount. To him, it did not matter if the time it took a sailor to smash a plate in Battleship Potemkin was extended unrealistically long – it highlighted an emotion. It did not matter to him that as they entered Odessa, Tsarist soldiers took a borderline unprofessional amount of time to conduct their massacre- for impact trumps simplicity. This vitally important and yet tragically overlooked movement, which asserted film should prioritise meaning above all else, would find echoes from the French New Wave to New Hollywood and beyond.


Image: Official USSR stamp via Wikimedia Commons 

By Reuben Bharucha

Film and TV Editor