Now over a century old, the cinematic theories of the Moscow film school have proven themselves a foundation for modern cinema. Considering the pioneering works of Eisenstein and Kuleshov, we will trace the rich lineage of Soviet Montage, investigating its impact on popular film throughout recent history. Throughout this blog, we will reference the works of Hitchcock and Godard, reframing the canon through the lens of Soviet Theory, and will subsequently examine the recent Rocky franchise as an example of a recent, mainstream instance of this montage technique.
The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic was replaced by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) on the 30th of December 1922. They did not waste any time when it came to discovering that cinema was a key propaganda tool due to its popularity amongst the Russian public. Vladimir Lenin supported this movement as the first political leader to understand the importance of cinema and its ability to convey ideas and messages to audiences regardless of their level of intelligence. Everyone was able to watch a film and interpret the messages behind it and Lenin was very aware of this, therefore making it the number one source of propaganda for the USSR, stating that ‘the cinema is for us the most important of the arts’ (quoted, Taylor, 445). Stalin also later adapted this same mentality, further valuing advancement in Soviet cinema. On the 17th of January 1922 Lenin established the Directives of the Film Business, which called for the registering of all the films that would be shown in Soviet Russia and also charged rent to the cinemas whilst censoring the type of films they could distribute. However, the film industry did not remain on top as between World War 1 and key workers in the industry (producers, directors, actors etc.) began to leave the country. Eventually the Russian empire was able to get back on its feet and found a source of money to create short propaganda films, intended to encourage the public to accept the new soviet ideologies and boost morale. An important product of Soviet cinema was ‘Soviet montage theory’, which was an approach aimed at analysing the use of editing and its impact on spectatorship. Pioneers such as Sergei Eisenstein and Hitchcock practiced such methods, as well as director V.I Pudovkin, who stated ‘Editing is the basic creative forced, by power of which the soulless photographs are engineered into living, cinematographic form’ (Bordwell and Thompson 217). Eisenstein cited montage as the ‘collision’ of shots, suggesting that Russian audiences struggled to appreciate it as they were used to films which encompassed simple visual aids with lectures or propaganda speeches played over the top of them. This new, much more complex cinema was revolutionary and allowed for growth to transpire in the industry.
With the theories of this industry relying so firmly on the idea of montage as a truly impactful part of film it is important to understand its ‘methods’. According to Eisenstein’s theory, montage in film is the combination of neutral shots used together to display a singular ideology or meaning. Eisenstein wrote of montage that it is “fundamental to cinema” (attractions,26) and the rest of his theory certainly displays that, with montage being used as a tool not only to evoke an emotional response in the audience but also an intellectual response. In his theory Eisenstein proposes that there are five methods of montage. These methods can be found in many films but Eisenstein specifically refers to montage in soviet cinema, including in Eisenstein’s own films. These methods being titled Metric, Rhythmic, Tonal, Overtonal and intellectual montage (methods, 73). Metric montage does not take into account the content of the “piece” of film but rather relies wholly on the length of this “piece”. These pieces/shots are then “joined together” (methods,72) in a way that mirrors the pacing of a musical score (one unbeknownst to the audience). Eisenstein thought that by shortening the length of the shots used, and combining them in this ‘formula’ (the formula being the timing of the musical score) tension would be achieved and the audience would have an emotional reaction. This method can be seen in many soviet era films, an example of one of these films being October: Ten days that shook the world. In this film there is a scene in which this is displayed with the “accelerating dance of the savage division” (Frierson). The camera cuts quickly from dancing feet to spinning faces further creating the desired tension. Perhaps the most commonly used and well-known method of montage would be Rhythmic editing. Unlike many of the other methods of montage that Eisenstein talks of, such as metric montage, Rhythmic editing relies on the content of the shots, rather than the amount of time the shot is shown. A famous sequence of film still frequently referenced in film that uses this type of montage would be the ‘Odessa steps’ sequence from Eisenstein’s own film Battleship Potemkin. In this scene the steps of the soldiers down the stairs towards the innocent people are shown and are cut “offbeat” to the drumming (methods,74) . This unsynchronized editing creates anxiety in the audience and therefore creates tension. Tonal montage is thought to be “a stage beyond” (methods, 75) the previously mentioned method Rhythmic montage. Tonal montage is cut to the “general tone” of the piece, meaning the emotional sound of the piece. What this means is that if two shots similarly share a visual or audible tone this would be the “general tone” (methods,75) of the piece and these two shots would be unified to create meaning. Overtonal montage grows from the principal tone of the piece and the overtone of the piece. In this method the metric rhythmic and tonal methods of montage are all used together to create the desired reaction from the audience. The final method of montage Eisenstein mentions is the intellectual method of montage. Intellectual montage is described by Eisenstein as “montage of sounds and tones of an intellectual sort” (methods,82). Whilst this kind of montage can evoke a reaction, it is made as an intellectual statement of sorts to prove a point.
The ‘methods’ described in Eisenstein and Kuleshov’s writing became foundational, even in the styles of Soviet Cinema’s ideological rival; penetrating the auteurist sphere of capitalist, Hollywood Cinema. Alfred Hitchcock famously sought to bring such principles to the forefront of western popular culture, directly referencing the ‘Kuleshov Effect’ in a series of interviews. In films such as Rear window, Hitchcock relies heavily upon Kuleshov’s so-called ‘third image (…) that is synthesized by the spectator’ (Hayward, 364). In its iconic exposition, we flicker between spectator and spectated, whilst through narrative elision, observations are left to the viewer. Soviet principles were the influence for Hitchcock’s visual storytelling style and “show-don’t-tell” methodology, which, in turn, inspired successive generations of filmmakers. Here, the clashing of collectivist soviet ideology with that of the singular ‘auteur’, creates something new. In Hollywood, ‘intellectual montage’ is used as a commercial creative medium rather than the often-impenetrable political tool that, in the cases of films such as Eisenstein’s highly abstract ‘October: Ten Days That Shook the World, baffled and deterred audiences. ‘Kuleshov, as a theorist, of course, is not responsible for what Hitchcock does with his ideas, however mutated they have become when Hitchcock finishes with them. Clearly, however, Hitchcock is trying to piggyback Kuleshov’s work’ (Prince, Wayne, 65-66). Soviet influence on Hitchcock’s work is evident, and as film historians, we may trace through this, the ways in which filmmaking styles may be altered and appropriated to adapt to varying cultural contexts. Hitchcock, as a commercial auteur, rather than a Marxist revolutionary, reframes ‘intellectual montage’, converting it, instead, into a medium prone to perpetuate the values of western, capitalist culture. The impact of montage theory on Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ was vast, and even defiantly patriotic American works infused with wartime propaganda, such as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, were contrarily loaded with bold and influential montage sequences, owing to methods originally devised for Marxist doctrine.
From crowd-pleasing melodrama to the surrealist avant-garde, the principles of Soviet Montage Theory have proved themselves a framework for the heightened elicitation of audience response. The constructivist roots of Soviet cinema, which ‘called for the abandonment of previous models’ (Haran, 95), imbued its formal traits with a disruptive potential which lends itself somewhat naturally to the endeavours of counter-cinema. Due to this, its impact may be seen across the cinematic canon, and is not restricted to the dominant cinemas of the state. The highly influential ‘Nouvelle Vague’, for example, is a movement which recontextualizes Eisenstein’s ‘intellectual montage’ for its own ideological endeavours. Godard, involved in the ‘Dziga-Vertov-Group’, actively expanded upon Soviet theory and the works of Eisenstein. ‘Both question the cinematic apparatus on a formal level, and it is this that is their greatest contribution to film history’ (Kiernan, 112). An example of this is the opening sequence of Vivre Sa Vie. Here, Godard rejects spatio-temporal continuity. He cuts with rhythmic flow between juxtaposed angles of Anna Karina’s often-obscured profile before settling on the back of her head. A whole dialogue plays out this way – with editing and shot-choice evading our protagonist’s face – rendering conventional alignment fractured. This interplay of ‘intellectual’ and ‘overtonal montage’ epitomises the structure of New Wave narratives, and demands the political engagement of the viewer, who must, akin to Kuleshov’s teachings, make connections between vignettes which deconstruct not only the form of mainstream cinema, but also its ideological bearings. It is clear, then, that both Hitchcock and Godard, often cited as the most influential figures in film history, still owe a great deal of their auteurist style to the Soviet Montage movement, and that, therefore, equally does the bulk of popular cinema.
As demonstrated thus far, the impact of Soviet cinema is immeasurable, and duly, it is not just visible in outdated, historic film styles. Over decades of film history, we have seen many movies that have taken the idea of Montage from its soviet origins and adjusted it to a much more modern style. This is known as Modern Movie Montage, which is often used as a means of progressing the story or a means of showing a character’s progression over an extended period of time. One prominent example of this would be the Rocky franchise (the first of which was released in 1976). The training montages of Rocky are some of the most famous in film history, with a third of Rocky IV being made up of montage sequences. These scenes relate to the original Soviet Montage theory, and were influenced by the Cold War, which lasted for roughly 44 years between America and the Soviet Union via many proxy wars, and was a backdrop for the first six films of the Rocky franchise. Rocky utilizes ‘intellectual montage’ which was first developed by Eisenstein for Soviet Propaganda, perhaps most notably in 1925’s Battleship Potemkin. The major difference in Rocky, however, is that the training scenes function instead as American Propaganda. For example, in Rocky IV, Rocky trains out in the wilderness, whereas his opponent uses very advanced technology to train for the fight. This scene shows Rocky having perseverance which can create a huge amount of confidence within American audiences, as they see the American protagonist training as hard as he can. This causes a tertium quid, which is a way of creating a scene that shows oppression and helplessness to make the audience feel that there is no hope for the hero, and this in turn makes you want them to succeed even further. This device is likely to affect American audiences as it is an American hero they align with. Because of the success of the montages of the Rocky franchise we can trace its impact on subsequent cinema which used the training montage trope to similar effect. However, the Success of Rocky and its use of montage was not unparalleled, as by the time of the late 1980’s, the montage technique had become widespread and all genres of film were now using the method that Soviet theorists had originally created as a means of propaganda.
To conclude, the humble beginnings of soviet cinema of which come from a complex and politically charged history of Russia still continue to shape, influence and inspire films today. Whether it be a soviet inspired film with communist ideals or a capitalist, commercial success with soviet influences (namely soviet montage), such principles continue to persevere.
‘Battleship Potemkin’.Directed by Sergei M. Eisenstein, produced by Jacob Bliokh, Mosfilm, 1925.
‘Casablanca’. Directed by Michael Curtiz, Warner Bros. 1942
Eisenstein, Sergei. “Methods of Montage, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, edited and translated by Jay Leyda, Harcourt Brace & Company 1949.
Eisenstein, Sergei. “The Montage of Film Attractions”, The European Reader, edited by Catherine Fowler, Taylor and Francis Group, 1924.
Flaherty, Joe. “Rocky’s Road”. Film Comment, Vol. 18, No. 4, July-August, 1982
Frierson, Michael. “Film and Video Editing Theory: How Editing Creates Meaning”. Taylor & Francis, 2018.
Hayward, Susan. “Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts”. 4th Edition, London: Routledge, 2013
Haran, Barnaby. “Kino in America: Soviet Montage and the American Cinematic Avant-Garde.” Watching the Red Dawn: The American Avant-Garde and the Soviet Union, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2016, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvnb7jsr.8
Kiernan, Maureen. “Making Films Politically: Marxism in Eisenstein and Godard”. Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, no. 10, 1990. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/521719
‘October: Ten Days That Shook the World’. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein, Sovkino, 1928.
Palmer, R. Barton . Eisensteinian Montage and Joyce’s “Ulysses”: The Analogy Reconsidered- R. Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal Vol. 18, No. 3 (Summer 1985)
Prince, Stephen, and Wayne E. Hensley. “The Kuleshov Effect: Recreating the Classic Experiment.” Cinema Journal, vol. 31, no. 2, 1992, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1225144.
‘Rear Window’. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions, 1954
‘Rocky’ franchise. United Artists/MGM, 1972-1990
Taylor, Richard. “A ‘Cinema for the Millions’: Soviet Socialist Realism and the Problem of Film Comedy.” Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 18, no. 3, 1983. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/260546
‘Vivre Sa Vie’. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Pathé Consortium Cinéma, 1962