Soviet montage

A hundred years ago Soviet filmmakers such as Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein demonstrated how you could create meaning purely through film editing.

Ivan Mosjoukine
Unknown author / Public domain

Consider the following montage, using the noted silent film actor Ivan Mosjoukine (pictured above): a man’s face; a bowl of soup; back to the man. Although the acting is subtle, the audience praises the pangs of hunger that Ivan expresses using only a few small expressions.

Second montage: Ivan again, then a young girl lying in a coffin, then back to Ivan. The grief in his face is palpable, moving the audience to tears.

Third montage: Ivan, then a shot of a sexy lady, then back to Ivan. His leering lechery is understated but very obvious to the audience.

Here’s the thing, though: unbeknown to the audience, all the shots of Ivan were identical. It was just a clip of him with an impassive neutral expression. The “acting” seen by the audience came not from Ivan but from the juxtaposition with the other clips. This is the power of editing.

This experiment, conducted by Lev Kuleshov in the 1910s and repeated often since,  demonstrated how the formal tool of editing could be used by a filmmaker to create meaning. Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet director and film theorist, wrote often about the power of montage – and indeed, his description of its effect is quoted in pretty much every textbook on film editing:

Each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other.

In other words, a film editor could put several unconnected shots together in a montage and we as viewers will use the similarities, differences, and transitions to find “intellectual” meaning in the sequence. I remember a smooth editing transition in Baraka that cuts from a commuter rush down a series of escalators to a set of factory-farmed baby chicks sliding down a conveyor belt. Two unrelated shots, but the overall meaning is clear… and devastating.

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