Soviet Montage • Battleship Potemkin

Greenscreening Series #06

The first film school. The first film theory. And film editing will never be the same.

September 16, 2022

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Battleship Potemkin (1925), directed by Sergei Eisenstein (find it via Reelgood)

Endlessly referenced and even parodied, Battleship Potemkin is one of the most influential films on modern film editing. It is THE major work of Soviet Cinema and the best example of the central concepts of montage theory, which shaped how films were made and studied.

The film is loosely based on a real-life naval mutiny early in the Russian Revolution. The story follows the build up of the mutiny into a full-blown revolution against the oppressive czar. Potemkin can feel strange to modern viewers. There are few central characters, and that’s by design: the masses are the central character, and this is a larger political drama rather than a personal story. And as Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, the editing of the film is rhythmic, and so traditional silent era musical scores often clash with the flow of this film.

Critics and directors absolutely love Battleship Potemkin. The film is one of two that has appeared on every Sight and Sound critics’ poll from 1952-2012, most often appearing in the top 10 of these lists of the greatest films ever made. Battleship Potemkin was named the greatest film of all time at the 1958 World's Fair. Dozens of films have directly referenced its famous “Odessa Steps” sequence, one of the greatest action and suspense sequences ever filmed, and certainly the greatest of the silent era. The sequence depicts czarist troops shooting a crowd of civilians as they attempt to aid the mutinous soldiers. It's such a famous sequence that the steps have become a popular tourist destination, which people visit to commemorate the tragic civilian massacre... which didn't actually happen, at least not on the steps.

This week, we’ll discuss why this film was so influential, along with a look at montage theory.

The Soviets Establish the First Film School

Why were the Soviets so interested in editing that they developed an entire theory around it? We have to go back to the beginning of Soviet cinema, which began as a result of the Revolution.

In 1917, as Europe was in the final days of WWI, the Bolsheviks led a socialist revolution in Russia that overthrew Czar Nicholas II, establishing a republic that became the Soviet Union a few years later.

Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks understood and sought to exploit cinema’s potential for spreading propaganda. But they were facing two major obstacles: the country’s infrastructure and economy had been decimated by WWI and the Revolution, and a large portion of film industry professionals had fled the country during the Revolution.

The Bolsheviks needed to rebuild a film industry nearly from scratch.

One of the first steps they took was founding the world’s first film school, to study the art of cinema and train the next generation of filmmakers. On behalf of film school grads everywhere, thank you, Soviets (basically only for that, space travel, and the Dream Team).

This new generation of Soviet film scholars and filmmakers had a directive straight from Lenin: develop a uniquely Soviet cinema, one that rejected the tendencies of decadent capitalism, and could become the superior form of cinema.

The Soviets thus experimented with every aspect of film form and production, seeking to understand the fundamental essence of cinema. The results would have tremendous influence, both within the Soviet Union and abroad.

The Kuleshov Effect

A Soviet filmmaker named Lev Kuleshov ran a series of experiments trying to figure out how the brain interpreted meaning from films. Kuleshov combined shots of a man with a neutral facial expression, a bowl of soup, a child in a coffin, and a woman on a sofa. Kuleshov discovered that people interpreted the actor’s expression differently depending on which shot preceded or followed the shot of the man - either hunger (with the soup), sadness (with the baby), or desire (with the woman on the sofa). Here are the photos. The labels are mine. Try to look at them one at a time.

The Kuleshov Effect - soup creates the illusion of hunger

The Kuleshov Effect - sadness

The Kuleshov Effect - desire

What Kuleshov discovered was that viewers projected emotion onto a neutral expression based on the context provided by the other image.

The synthesis of these images evoked a different meaning than the individual images evoked independently.

This experiment was foundational to the development of Soviet cinema. After all, cinema is nothing more than a collection of images shown in sequence. In Soviet cinema, shots alone didn't create meaning; it was by editing shots together that one harnessed cinema's true expressive power. This was the basis for montage theory.

Montage Theory

Montage comes from the French word for editing. Montage theory is a way of interpreting and creating films based on editing as the essential art of cinema, the strategic choosing of shots and cutting them together to produce a certain meaning or impact in the viewer's mind.

Rather than using editing purely for story continuity, editing could be used to create meaning by juxtaposing certain images side by side. "What is a movie?" The Soviets might have answered, "a visual argument."

As Sergei Eisenstein wrote, "montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots" wherein "each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other" Hang on to the word "collision," because that's crucial for understanding some of his choices. We'll come back to those.What did Eisenstein mean by "on top of one another?” We saw this in the Kuleshov Effect - images placed strategically next to one another will form new, cumulative meaning that the images don’t necessarily have independently.

The Five Methods of Montage

Before we dig into the types of montage, it's important to note that all montage involves editing, not all editing is montage. A large portion of editing that we see is coverage -- this is the use of different camera setups and shots to construct a scene, usually done to splice together multiple takes, and to make scenes of dialogue a bit more visually interesting.

One of the most prominent styles of scene editing is called shot-reverse shot. Rather than filming a conversation as if the actors are on a stage, you can achieve a heightened sense of realism and visual interest by having the actors face one another and shooting over each actor's shoulders as they speak to one another, cutting back and forth between the shot and its reverse.

Shot - Reverse Shot Editing in *When Harry Met Sally*

Another common type of editing within scenes and sequences is continuity editing. To take an example from a film we watched earlier in the series, the final sequence from 1909's Max Takes a Bath.

The ending sequence only makes sense because of continuity editing. The shots are:

  1. Max arguing with police at the police station,
  2. the policeman tipping over the tub,
  3. Max running out of the police station, hiding under the tub, with the police giving chase,
  4. Max and the tub climbing the side of the building,
  5. the police climbing the building,
  6. Max throwing the tub at the police, and
  7. the tub knocking the policemen off the side of the building.

We know it's Max beneath the tub because we saw the shot of Max in the police station in the tub, when the policeman tips over the tub, and we see the tub move out of frame. This fact is established by what we see, and the cut on the action preserves our understanding that this immediately followed the tub-tipping, and Max is fleeing the police. If we hadn’t seen that occur, what would we make of the shot of the tub and bare legs running down the street? It would be jarring; we might assume Max escaped, or we might assume that they sent him home with the tub as punishment. Or we might even assume someone else stole the tub and was taking it away. Point is, it would be weird and disorienting - the cutting in this example preserves continuity of events.

These methods of editing are necessary in filmmaking, but they don't comprise montage.

The Soviet school defined five methods of montage:

Metric montage

Metric montage involves cutting based on a measure or length of time.

For an example, see this clip in Eisenstein's October (1929). The end shows rapid metric cutting of images of a machine gun and gunner, the images lasting the same length of time.In contemporary filmmaking, you'll sometimes see metric montage in music videos, sometimes in vlogs as well. But generally, it's not used nearly as much as other types of montage.

Rhythmic Montage

Involves cutting based on the content of the shots. Edits differ in length depending on what happens within the sequence. So as opposed to metric, which editing was time-based irrespective of content, with rhythmic montage the timing of clips is driven by the content.

The Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin is the prototypical example of rhythmic montage. This is by far the most common form of montage used in modern filmmaking.

We've probably all seen training montages. Training montages use rhythmic montage to build excitement and the thrill of achievement. Check out one of the original training montages, from Rocky (1976).

One of my favorite examples of rhythmic montage is from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), in which the classic Western genre trope of the showdown is dragged out to a phenomenal level of tension by the cutting between closeups of the gunfighters as they stare one another down.

Another modern example is the "hip hop mini-montage" from Requiem for a Dream (2000), where the rhythmic cutting and sharp sound effects echo the characters' senses and sensations, and as the film progresses and the montage is used regularly, a sense of habit / addiction.

Tonal Montage

This method involves cutting based on tones within the shots, highlighting emotional themes or meanings in the shots by linking aural or visual similarities. 

A terrific example of tonal montage is the turf sequence from City of God (2002). Warning: the clip isn't for kids. In this sequence, the camera stays static while the history of an apartment plays out, highlighting the weight of the history of crime and violence in the neighborhood.

Overtonal Montage

This method combines metric, rhythmic, and tonal montage to make an even more abstract and complicated effect. This method is also very popular in modern filmmaking.

Later in this series, we'll see two of the most famous examples of overtonal montage: the shower scene from Psycho (1960), and the baptism sequence in The Godfather. Feel free to search those out on YouTube, or wait to see them later in the series.

For now, two examples to peruse.

This clip from The Age of Innocence (1993) uses a combination of montage methods to evoke the character's nostalgia and melancholy over a lost love.

Also, consider the opening sequence of Up (2009), which tells a couple's entire story in about four minutes. This is an incredibly powerful sequence, using both tonal montage and rhythmic montage quite effectively. See if you can spot their usage.

Intellectual Montage

Quite simply, this is the ideological implementation of the Kuleshov effect: shots edited together to produce a visual metaphor.

One of the most famous examples of intellectual montage comes from Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 film, Strike, which told the story of a group of factory workers who go on the titular strike. Things end badly for the strikers. Eisenstein juxtaposed images of strikers being shot with images of cattle being slaughtered - the metaphor drawing sympathy from the audience and condemning the violence.

You will also see examples in Battleship Potemkin, but I want you to be on the lookout for those. They're not always subtle. Let me know what you notice.

One example that I really like is from John Carpenter's They Live (1988), which is an absolutely bonkers film. In this scene, the protagonist, Nada, discovers a hidden truth about our world when he tries on a pair of sunglasses that he found. 

Finally, BlacKkKlansman (2018), which we discussed earlier in the series, has a powerful example of intellectual montage at the end of the film. Spike Lee juxtaposes images of the film's fictional protagonists with images of real world white nationalist speeches, and footage of violence at the Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally, to call us to attention that though the story of the film took place in the 1970s, the same racism and the violence are very much real and very much current. 

Battleship Potemkin and the Legacy of Soviet Montage

Like many early filmmakers, Sergei Eisenstein got his start in the theater. After the Revolution, Eisenstein got work in the industry and made his way into directing.

Eisenstein published some of the most influential essays on montage theory, in addition to directing films. And he provided us with the most striking early examples of montage.

As mentioned before, his breakthrough feature debut, Strike (1925), used intellectual montage to draw sympathy for the strikers. The film was internationally acclaimed and Eisenstein became one of the most well-regarded directors in the Soviet Union.

Eisenstein's follow-up to Strike was Battleship Potemkin, actually released the same year.

The film was an international sensation. The actor Douglas Fairbanks saw it in Moscow and was so impressed that he brought a print to the US, hosted private screenings at his estate, helped distribute the film, and invited Eisenstein to work in Hollywood.

Many countries, particularly in Europe, banned the film for its revolutionary zeal. In fact, the film was banned in the UK until the 50s, and was X-rated until the 80s, primarily due to its graphic violence.

Like many pioneering filmmakers, Eisenstein’s career was a victim of his success. He never again reached the heights of Potemkin, and with the advent of sound, Eisenstein struggled to stay en vogue. He did eventually make it to Hollywood, where he had trouble getting projects off the ground. He made a few well-regarded films in the late 1930s and 40s, but passed away at age 50.

Despite his late career troubles, Eisenstein's theories and his films left a tremendous legacy.

Potemkin was a huge leap forward in action filmmaking. You can see hints of the rapid, visceral cutting you see in modern action films. Sure, there's not as much of a central hero as you see, but Potemkin is one of the first films to achieve real tension in its action.

Also influential: the use of graphic, realistic violence. Consider the Odessa Steps sequence in contrast to Birth of a Nation’s Civil War scenes. While Griffith's work is monumental and almost documentary in its scope of the battlefield, its violence is nowhere near as visceral or shocking as Potemkin.

Finally, the entirety of film theory is built on the foundation of Soviet Montage Theory. And montage theory remained the most influential theory of filmmaking until the emergence of auteur theory in the 1950s. That's not to say everyone adhered to it. Hollywood never fully embraced Soviet-style montage; some directors merely incorporated some elements of it into Hollywood-style narrative filmmaking. But the influence of montage theory is still seen in the tension between Hollywood's commercial filmmaking and more prestigious awards-focused filmmaking, or in independent film.

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention again that those of us who attended film school or studied film owe thanks to the Soviets, who created the first film school. After WWII, schools in the US and Europe (particularly France) began treating film as an art form, creating film schools and college majors for film studies and filmmaking.

In Closing

Montage theory may feel academic, and you'll probably find Battleship Potemkin is kind of a slog, even at 74 minutes. But my hope with this edition is that you can see how important montage theory has been and continues to be in modern filmmaking.

If you're curious to see more instances of where the Odessa Steps sequence has been referenced and parodied, check this out:

One of the goals of this series is to enhance our vocabulary as moviegoers. By better understanding cinematic language, we can better engage with different types of films, and understand what kinds of techniques filmmakers are deploying, and why. It is of course possible to enjoy films without spotting whether montage is being used, and which method of montage is being used. But I think understanding this language helps us appreciate the art and craft behind great filmmaking, and to better understand some of the subtleties going on beneath the surface.

Early Soviet cinema showed us that film could be used to powerful ends, and that specific techniques could be deployed to influence mass opinion. If we're to be responsible moviegoers, we should understand how to engage with its persuasive techniques.

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