Soviet montage is a type of film theory focused on understanding and creating cinema using specific film editing techniques. The theory was conceived in the Soviet Union during the 1920’s and was pioneered by such Soviet directors as Alexander Dovzhenko, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Dziga Vertov, and most famously, Sergei Eisenstein. Though many of these directors disagreed about montage, Eisenstein’s thinking was eventually viewed as “soviet montage.” Eisenstein’s essays on film form and film theory revolutionized the view of film from simple entertainment to intellectual artwork. However, they were a hybrid of the theories collectively established by several Soviet directors.
The Kuleshov Experiment
Lev Kuleshov was an early Soviet director, possibly one of the first film theorists of montage, who worked prior to Eisenstein’s appearance in film. Kuleshov viewed editing as a manipulation of the audience as much as a manipulation of film, and he was intrigued by the way juxtaposition could change how the audience felt about certain actors (wikipedia). He is most famous for the Kuleshov Experiment, in which he intercut a single shot of one actor with various images (a bowl of soup, a girl, a casket, etc.) and played it for his audiences (Jones). Though the same shot of him was displayed every time, those who viewed the film praised the actor’s talent, believing he subtly changed his facial expressions in reaction to each image. For Soviet filmmakers of the time, this showed film as fragments that needed to be put together in an order to alter the audience’s mood. The final editing of the film was just as important, if not more so, than what the actual shots were.
Pudovkin was a student of Kuleshov’s. He went on to famously state, which many directors since have espoused as well, “The foundation of film art is editing.” Pudovkin’s theory of montage focused not only on the juxtaposition of shots through editing, but also the comparison of objects in the mise-en-scene. Pudovkin saw actors more as objects on the screen rather than working actors. He also saw montage as the key to revealing the emotion of a scene, including the actors, by their relationship to other objects in the shot (Jones).
A major difference between Eisenstein and Pudovkin’s use of montage was Eisenstein’s insistance on conflict, where not only was there conflict occuring in the narrative, but even the editing would cut together conflicting shots, sometimes disrupting the flow of the story. Pudovkin did not share this view and often would not cut parts of his film to intentionally disrupt the narrative. His view of montage was to create a powerful emotion and he wished to build up that emotion with his narrative and editing.
Vertov’s ideas for montage differed from Eisensteins as well. He did not think that montage was specific to editing and believed that every decision made by the director qualified as montage. Vertov focuses less on the emotional aspect that many other Soviets of the time found essential to the theory of montage. Instead, he would create the plot of his films through the editing of shots. A theme was selected (which Vertov regarded as an aspect of montage as well) and from there the composition of shots created the feeling of a story line, left open-ended to the audience (Kuscu).