Who Is Sergei Eisenstein, and What Was Soviet Montage Theory?

Who is Sergei Eisenstein and What Was Soviet Montage Theory?
How did Sergei Eisenstein and Soviet montage theory change filmmaking as we know it? 

In the early days of cinema, everything had to be invented. So much of what we know today was pioneered by people experimenting and doing what they can to create cinema. Out of this experimentation and search for meaning, cinematic language was created. 

Today, we want to look at one of those early movements that changed all of cinema as we know it. We'll get the definition of Soviet montage theory, montages, we'll learn about Sergei Eisenstein, and we'll see how we can continue the work they started and keep experimenting in the future. 

So without further ado, let's cut together some answers and explanations. 

Who Is Sergei Eisenstein and What Was Soviet Montage Theory? 

When filmmakers were first pioneering how to create movies and elicit emotions from the audience, they experimented with lots of different editing styles. Lev Kuleshov pioneered an idea that would be known as the Kuleshov Effect. It is a cognitive event in which viewers derive more meaning from the interaction of two sequential shots than from a single shot in isolation. 

But that was just the beginning. People wanted to build on that idea. 

As more and more people experimented with the Kuleshov effect, we delved into montage theory. 

What does the montage theory of editing propagate?

What does the montage theory of editing propagate? Well, the strictest answer to that question is that two or three shots joined in a certain order become much more than the sum of their individual parts when put together.

They can tell a story that would not be understandable from just one of the images, and would only be able to be deciphered when put together with multiple shots that form a whole. 

Soviet montage theory definition

Soviet montage theory is an approach to creating movies that rely heavily upon editing techniques. It holds that editing and the juxtaposition of images is the lifeblood of filmmaking. While many filmmakers just shot wide shots of the action, Soviet montage theory cut together shorter shots to build a story. 

This version of the montage theory is the principal contribution of Soviet film theorists to global cinema and brought about formalism into filmmaking.

At the forefront of this movement was Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein. 

Who was Sergei Eisenstein? 

Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein was a Soviet director and film theorist who was a pioneer in creating the cinematic language we use today. He was one of the first people to use montage and is known widely for his seminal silent film, Battleship Potemkin (1925). 

He's known as the father of montage theory. 

Eisenstein montage theory 

As we mentioned earlier, everyone in the early 1900s was trying to define what filmmaking could be. Soviet filmmakers disagreed about how exactly to view montage. What kind of a tool was it, and how did it build on Kuleshov's ideals? 

Enter Sergei Eisenstein. He wrote a note of accord in "A Dialectic Approach to Film Form." In it, he said that montage is "the nerve of cinema," and that "to determine the nature of montage is to solve the specific problem of cinema."

While he didn't invent montage, Eisenstein codified its use in Soviet and international filmmaking and theory. He adapted montage to the cinema and expanded his theories throughout his career.

Eisenstein's work is divided into two periods. The first is classified as "mass dramas." These focus on formalizing the Marxist political struggle of the proletariat. It is encompassed in his films Strike and Battleship Potemkin. 

The second period in his montage exploration focuses much more on the "individual." Here, he focused much more on how montage could tell a personal story. 

Sergei Eisenstein montage in Battleship Potemkin 

If you've been to film school or are just a cinephile, I can almost guarantee you've heard of Battleship Potemkin. It's a 1925 Soviet silent film directed by Sergei Eisenstein that presents a dramatized version of the mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against its officers.

This film was created by Eisenstein to foster revolutionary propaganda,  but also used it to test his theories of montage.

He did this by experimenting with the editing inside the movie to try to get the greatest emotional response to what was happening on screen. This way, the viewer would feel sympathy and maybe even empathy for the sailors of the Battleship Potemkin. 

Einstein did this by editing together montages within the film. Check out the famous Odessa steps scene below. 

Montage today

Eisenstein's theories did not die with him but changed cinema forever. Editing began to inspire filmmakers to set up more shots and take more chances. We saw the French New Wave and American New Wave take these montage ideas and build incredible narratives. 

They changed editing and became the basis of storytelling. Now, we expect these kinds of edits and montages. They are almost second-nature to us, a universal way to transport viewers and share emotions. 

Think about that perfect montage from Parasite and how it really creates a mood and ethos that carries the rest of the film. 

Eisenstein's legacy lives on through the directors and editors he influences. It's been around a century since he began working, and we have almost all of cinematic history thanks to his work and ideas. 

According to Digital Film Archive, "Battleship Potemkin and Eisenstein’s theory of montage has inspired directors such as Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho), Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List), Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull), and Brian De Palma (The Untouchables)."

In fact, De Palma's The Untouchables contains a direct reference to Potemkin. Check it out below, and let us know what you think about montage and Eisentetin in the comments. 

What's next? Learn more about Film Theory

Basic knowledge of Film Theory could be your ticket to making a compelling argument, a classic film, or winning at Jeopardy. So read on!      

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1 Comment

The main image is nothing to do with Eisenstein. It's from Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov, who isn't mentioned in the article. More about Soviet montage (including Vertov) on my site here: https://www.learnaboutfilm.com/soviet-montage/

February 16, 2021 at 4:39AM, Edited February 16, 4:40AM

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Tom Barrance
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