Soviet Montage

Soviet Montage

During the early 1900’s Russia was an avant-garde and modernist society. It was a time of revolution and this was reflected in the art and films of the time.

The intellectuals were being influenced by Marx, Freud and Pavlov. The visual culture of the time can be linked to the beginnings of Futurism (abstract art), Suprematism (shape over meaning) and Constructivism (connection of art and labour).

Montage is juxtaposing images by editing to manipulate an audience.

Soviet Montage backed ideas of revolutionary change. This was reflected in the constant change of scenes in the films. Often the images would be clashing or there would be visual, emotional and intellectual conflict. The metric tempo could be rhythmic with shots of different lengths or tonal with slow cuts for an emotional tone.

Man with a movie camera (Vertov) 1905

I found this film is a great representation of Russian Montage as it was quite ahead of it’s time with it’s abstract and artistic take on constructivism. It is not self indulgent and is a good example of useful art. There is constant change from shot to shot backing the revolutionary ideas of change at the time.

This film shows an awakening city, even the buildings seem to be asleep. There are parallels of the eye between peoples, the buildings and the camera lens. The film is stylish with lots of quick images of everyday reality. It creates a great collection of patterns. The abstract shapes giving an impression of emotional conflict. There are thematic connections of the images of the washing of the windows, the woman and the street. The washing symbolising the awakening also. The aperture of the camera lens also giving a sense of awakening. There are also unrelated images with visual similarity. Vertov intercuts shots of frivolous activities with visually matching shots of labour, eg shaving shots with an axe or a manicure shot with a machine. The editing is fast and rhythmical, then suddenly it goes into a long scene where we see the train quickly moving along the track. It creates  a feeling of tension.  In the film, we see the process of film making; the unedited film, then a pair of scissors, then the image. We also see the shooting of a film, then we see the audience watching it, so we are watching the audience watching the movie which is the same movie we are watching ourselves. There is also a montage tracing the production process from a miner. To a power plant, to factory workers using the power to manufacture the goods, a lesson in Marxist economics. The film is a celebration of work and labour.

Battleship of Potemkin (Eisenstein)1905

Here we have a combination of fast and slow cut shots, and this binary opposition creates the tension and suspense throughout the film. There is a lot of conflict and confusion in the film with clashing images. The rapid progression of the images gives greater impact. Eisenstein also manipulates the audience perception of time by stretching out the crowds flight down the steps to several minutes. The runaway baby pram shows Eisenstein using montage to arouse emotion and idea logical consciousness in the viewer. This illustrates very well the ideological potential is montage.  At the conclusion of the steps scene, three shots of stone lions indicate awakening militancy, this representing a call to the people to rise up against oppression.

The Mother (Pudovkin)

This film is about courage and resilience. It is about chaos and revolutionary dreams. It shows a mothers struggle against Tsarist rule and how she is pulled into the revolutionary conflict when her husband and son are on opposite sides during a workers strike. When her son is imprisoned she aligns herself to the revolution and plans his escape. However the troops suppress the uprising and kill both the mother and son.

At the beginning of the sons trial, the film uses the montage technique to display the imposing courthouse and a few other buildings (from tsarist times) to be devoid life and look cold and sterile. Then at the end of the film it displays the vibrant industrial factories built during the 20th century. Showing the contrast between the dead tsarist society and the young soviet society. There is lots of quick scene changes and spotlighting. In the court scene the faces are lit up but the mothers is in dark light. There are also scenes shot from below – looking up to the soldiers (shows them as bulling) and shots from above- to the carriage when the son is going to jail. When the son is sentenced to hard labour, I like the shot where you can only see the hands of a woman comforting the mother, the face is hidden, it is possibly the woman’s hand who asked the son to hide the  ammunition as she remains hidden in the reason for all the son’s trouble. There are a lot of references to water in the film. The mothers tears, the dripping bucket, the escape scene where the son is on the ice. All being symbolic of sadness, unity or freedom. When the son learns of his planned escape in the prison it flashbacks to memories of being a baby and then he dances. I enjoyed the films use of the light and dark and the shadows. The close ups of facial expressions are good. The film promoted the revolutionary movement and the common worker. In the final scene when the demonstration becomes violent, the flag symbolising their cause is dropped by its holder. The mother takes up the flag and stands motionless against the soldiers as she cries. The camera shoots her in close up and the flag obscures her face symbolising the unity of the mother and the revolution. . Then as she walks towards the soldiers they trample her to death. The last shot shows the Kremlin with a flag on it’s mast, a close up reveals it too be the flag of the mother. By using the montage of these images it shows the mother to be a representation of the common person within the revolution.

This film is also an excellent example of soviet montage done in an an emotional tone.

The earliest short films were short single shot films, eg, workers leaving a factory. They were without editing. Then came along films such as An American fireman (1903) and the Great Train Robbery (1903)  where film began to tell a story. Multiple camera positions were used to show two separate events happening a the same time Panning also began to be used. In the film A Trip to the Moon, Melies was using trick photography, dissolve scenes and jump cuts. All these uses of the camera were being used in the soviet montage films too. The fast cutting in soviet montage created  a feeling of chaos and hysteria. The model shots used in a trip to the Moon were basic compared to the brilliant model shots of the roads and railways in the sky used in the great cityscapes of Metropolis. The use of soft focus lighting in Broken Blossoms create a surreal effect. It’s stylised lighting and use of tinting and toning  create a very atmospheric film.  Comparing the use of light in The cabinet of Caligari where the set is flooded with flat light and shadows painted directly on to the sets. This was a very new and different technique, yet both films are shadowy and mysterious, just in different ways. The jagged lighting and spaces in Caligari showed an extreme mental state.

Both the earlier films and the Russian montage films portray mans inhumanity to man, persecution and injustice. In Birth of a Nation, D.W Griffiths uses extensive cross cutting in the battle scenes to create a montage effect that elicits excitement and suspense. In Eisenstein’s Battleship of Potemkin, he uses both fast and slow cut shots to create tension and suspense. He also uses long shots and close ups of faces and objects. The shots are averaging 3 seconds, causing a feeling of panic and heart racing. In Broken Blossoms, our emotions are pricked by the slaughter of the innocent young girl and yet in Battleship Potemkin we are moved by innocence slaughtered by the state. Both films using cinema as an empathy machine. Both films, although different are both saying something about intolerance. They are both showing how people really are, showing human confusion and conflict but in different ways.


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