A certain kind of inspiration must be born of a time in which one’s country is heading into a brave new world. Nothing should ever be as it was and the future is as expansive as all of Russia itself. In the time of revolution – the late teens and early twenties – Soviet cinema established itself as a unique entity in the mass of national cinemas. Its innovation was stepping away from common narrative structure and adapting what has come to be called “Soviet Montage”. This new theory of editing was invented by Sergei Eisenstein and then adopted by a slew of other Russian filmmakers.
Eisenstein, however, was the one who realized its potential and first put it to work to make the people in the audience think whatever he wanted them to think. Educated as an engineer, Eisenstein enlisted in the Red Army at 19. After building bridges and digging trenches, he got into designing propaganda posters and it was the idealism of propaganda that would serve as the focal point of Eisenstein’s montage work. Lenin himself stated “The cinema is for us the most important of the arts. ” Only cinema requires no education to consume and can be easily deigned to subvert.
And subversion (though not for unpopular causes) was the aim of Soviet montage. Eisenstein developed the system of a Thesis, met with an Anti-Thesis, producing a Synthesis. This operation of montage was established according to the Marxist dialectic: “Human history and experience [is a] perpetual conflict in which a force (thesis) collides with a counterforce (anti-thesis) to produce from their collision a wholly new phenomenon (synthesis) which is not the sum of the two forces but something greater than and different from them both.  The idea of juxtaposing one shot with another came to Eisenstein from the Japanese language in which a word followed by another often means something completely different from either of the two words (knife + heart = sorrow, for example. ) Eisenstein aimed to construct films not from shots or scenes but from the ideas implanted into the minds of his audience from his shots’ juxtaposition with one-another. There are numerous instances of Eisenstein’s montage theory at work in his masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin (1925).
Rough seas foretell mutiny, maggots mirror scurrying men, three lion statues shown in succession represent the rising rage of the Tsar. There are ingenious montage decisions made in nearly every shot of Potemkin, the pro-revolution epic which came to be hailed as the best film ever made. It’s astonishing how dense each scene is. “[Potemkin] ran eighty-six minutes… and contained 1,346 shots. Birth of a Nation, with a running time of 195 minutes, contained only 1,375 shots. ” It’s with all those cuts that Eisenstein was able to shape the audience’s perception into what he wanted (or – later in his career – what the State wanted. What Eisenstein began, many emulated and soon Russian film was known for its dramatic use of editing. One of the more prominent films to fully utilize Soviet montage was Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Man is an assembly of seemingly random shots of city life. From cars on the street to people in motion to Vertov himself carrying his camera. Man represents Russia alive with enthusiasm following the revolution, a country with a genuine desire to better itself and its population. The revolution, a new beginning, could’ve itself been the reason for the invention of such a brilliant form of cinema.
Perhaps Eisenstein and Vertov were so in love with the idea of life under communism that they could do nothing but gloat about it in their films. Eisenstein’s idea of intellectual montage – the juxtaposition of two shots to produce an idea – was as important if not more important to the development of the cinema as D. W. Griffith’s development of invisible editing and narrative structure. Whereas Griffith’s ideas served Hollywood-style productions, Eisenstein’s theories fueled a more intellectual view on life and a more complex execution of that view in film.
Soviet montage films did not simply define a film movement but they paved the way for improvisation, reinterpretation and improvement on the techniques of montage. Man with a Movie Camera, for example, almost directly inspired Godfrey Reggio’s 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi. Bombarding the audience with image after image, these films shape the audience, instilling ideas and creating others seemingly from nothing. Eisenstein pioneered this technique but was soon censored by Stalin and a government that had become too paranoid and omnipresent to appreciate the ideals of the revolution.
But Eisenstein’s innovations stand even today as landmarks in the history of cinema. Not only did he hope to get a certain emotional response via his montage, he designed the length and position of his shots relative to each other to get an identical emotional response from every member of the audience. Nothing was left to interpretation but nothing was overt. Eisenstein’s syntheses transcended the frame and worked their way into the minds of the audience, enraging them, making them afraid and holding them captive.