Montage in Cinematography—Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein

by Renato Corghi

Reading 1: Montage as the Foundation of Cinematography by Lev Kuleshov

Purpose: Lev Kuleshov makes his purpose for writing this piece clear: to familiarize reader with the work of the Kuleshov group. More specifically, he is relating the process by which he developed his theory about montage and what his findings were. He breaks this process down into separate chronological stages.

To understand the impact of his work, it is important to have some background knowledge on Lev Kuleshov:

  • One of few prerevolutionary filmmakers to remain in Russia after the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin overthrew the Tsar of Russia in 1917.
  • Chosen by Lenin’s wife as the co—founder for the Moscow Film School in 1919. This was the first film school in the world.
  • Although the primary purpose of the school was to produce soviet propaganda filmmakers, Kuleshov and other faculty members focused on aspects of film theory.

The first stage of this process took place at around the time of the First World War. At the time, Russia’s film industry had begun to enjoy commercial success- much to the dismay of Kuleshov, who claims that the industry was filled with “bandits”, or people that were only interested film for its monetary value and not in its cultural development.

While the industry focused on profits, Kuleshov was interested in understanding the essence of cinematography. In order to do so, he set out to determine “those specific characteristics and those specific means of impressing the viewer, which are present only in cinema and no other art” (43). Kuleshov’s goal was to identify what elements or conditions of cinematography produced the impression that people associate with watching a film. In other words, he wants to understand what makes cinema, cinema.

This task was difficult at first, as it was hard to perceive the individual elements that emerged from film. They continued their research based on the theory that since cinema clearly had its own, unique way of influencing viewers, there must be identifiable elements within it that create this impression. After running into several nebulous conclusions about the essence of cinema, Kuleshov recounts making the decision to start attending film screenings at cinemas to try to locate the source of a film’s cinematographic impressibility upon an audience. He briefly explains that they decided to conduct their research cheaper theaters because the younger, less educated and more spontaneous crowds tended to react more impulsively to films.

One of the most evident findings from this observational research was that foreign films (American) not only attracted more people to the theater, but they also incited more reactions from the public. After this realization, Kuleshov and his colleagues focused their study on American films. They deconstructed American films entirely and compared them side-by-side to Russian films. Kuleshov found that:

“Russian film was constructed of several very lengthy shots photographed from a single position. The American film, on the other hand, at that time consisted of a large number of short shots filmed from various positions” (46).

Kuleshov attributes this characteristic of American film to its commercial determinism, given that American cinema patrons expected action-packed experiences. In their course of their Russian-American comparative study, Kuleshov and his colleagues made the breakthrough observation that the source of a film’s impact on the viewer was not the content of certain shots, but the organization, combination, and construction of those shots. This implied that the method of joining and combining shots was more significant than the content of the shots in a film (46). American films consisted of short, quickly alternating shots, while Russian films featured long, slow shots.  They argue that short sequences with a lot of brief alternations make the audience more aware of the cinematographic organization.

Hence, Kuleshov made the claim in his first theoretical essays published in 1916 that montage was the fundamental source of cinematographic impact upon a film audience. Montage can be defined:

  • The joining of shots in a predetermined order (47)
  • The organization of cinematic material (48)

After these conclusions, the work of the group was centered around the following principles:

  • “For the present we are working on a method of organizing the given material, that is, on montage, since montage is the main source of the power of cinematic effectiveness” (50).
  • “That effect is evident only in cinematography and the optimum impression is attained only through the montage, when that montage is not merely of ordinary scenes, but of scenes filmed by the American method of shooting” (50).

The group dedicated their work to utilizing the power of montage. In pages 51-53, Kuleshov explains how they began experimenting with montage and found that they were able to use it to create scenes and people that did not exist, simply by joining shots in a certain manner.

Kuleshov’s later experiments led to another significant conclusion regarding montage:

  • “With correct montage, even if one takes the performance of an actor directed at something quite different, it will still reach the viewer in the way intended by the editor, because the viewer himself will complete the sequence and see that which is suggested to him by montage” (54).

This theory- which Kuleshov was tested and proven by Kuleshov- helped push the limits of the role of montage in a film, as it shows that the editor/producer of a film also has the power to create impressions on the audience through his montage choices.

Discussion Question:

What does the class think about the notion of montage being the foundation of cinematography? Where you stand on the significance of content vs montage?

Reading 2: Film Form by Sergei Eisenstein

Sergei Eisenstein lays the argument for his essay very simply: cinema is, first and foremost, montage. He goes on to explain how even though Japanese cinema had up until this point ignored the role of montage in films, the essence of montage is alive in their culture. How so? In their writing.

Eisenstein makes the claim that the essence of montage has been present in one of the most fundamental structures of human life- language. He explains that when hieroglyphs are combined, the copulation is regarded as the product of the two individual characters, not the sum. That is, the act of combining them adds an entirely new dimension; each character alone refers to an object, but together they correspond to a concept. The same is true for cinema, which involves combining shots that are “depictive” in nature, into series with meaningful context.

Sergei compares montage in cinema to ideograms in Japanese poetry. He explains that in Japanse poetry the “simple combination of two or three details of material kind yields a perfectly finished representation of another kind- psychological” (32). To put it in other words, the meaning given attributed to the combined product is more than the sum of its objective parts. This leads into his next argument, which clashes with some of the ideas that Kuleshov cited.

As we read before, Kuleshov believed that individual shots are elements of montage, and that montage is the assembly or organization of these elements, much like bricks which are put together to construct a building. Eisenstein argues that this understanding “derives only from the external indications of its flow” (36). He characterized montage as collision and conflict between two pieces in opposition to each other. He believes that from the collision of two independent factors arises a concept, just like in ideographs. In his view, shots are not bricks to be put together to create montage, but cells that can contain montage within them.

Eisenstein’s examples of cinematic conflict within the frame:

  • Conflict of graphic directions
  • Conflict of scales
  • Conflict of volumes
  • Conflict of masses.
  • Conflict of depths.
  • Close shots and long shots.
  • Pieces of graphically varied directions, etc.

Eisenstein regards the frame as an independent, molecular case of montage. He explains that the lighting for a single shot constitutes montage, because we are sensing the collision between a stream of light and an obstacle.

Sergei Eisenstein’s essay pointed out how the fundamental element of cinema- montage, is present throughout Japanese culture in elements of language and writing. At the same time, he criticizes Japanese filmmakers for failing to extract these principles from their other cultural art forms instead of pursuing imitations of American and European commercial cinema.

Discussion question: How do Eisenstein and Kuleshov’s understanding of montage differ? Which view do you agree with?

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