Montage describes cutting together images that aren’t in spatial or temporal continuity. The
roots of the montage aesthetic were in the modernist movements that had revolutionized the
visual arts in Europe in the early 1900s. By 1910, a group of Russian painters were trying to
invent a new kind of art, one that utilized graphic collage to create a kind of shock for the
viewer, and the creative use of juxtaposition was becoming widespread in European modernist
art, theater and poetry. After the Soviet revolution, Soviet filmmakers developed a complex set
of theories around the use of montage that was quite different from its use in Europe to depict
confused, mental states or a rush of events.
The Soviet filmmakers approach contrasted the predominant continuity editing system in
which the viewer isn’t aware of the cuts and doesn’t think about the way a film is edited at all.
The continuity system (usually used in Hollywood movies) is about telling a story in such a
way that it appears to be “telling itself.” Film theorists have often questioned the implications
of the “invisibility” of the narrative and possible audience manipulation. And Soviet avantgarde filmmakers were also interested in this, because by the 1920s these conventions were
already well-established and being adopted by filmmakers around the world. The montage
filmmakers asked questions such as, What effect does it have when the viewer is jolted into
awareness of film form by a cut between two very different, juxtaposed images?
In the 1920s, a lack of film stock meant that Soviet filmmakers often re-edited existing films or
learned how to make films by deconstructing old ones rather than shooting new material.
When they did shoot film, they often had only short lengths of film (called short ends) left
over from other productions, so they not only used short shots, they often planned them in
great detail. In fact, when Eisenstein taught filmmaking, the first thing he made his students
do was storyboard and set up shots for an entire film without any actual film in the camera.
European modernism inspired Soviet filmmakers to experiment with a much wider range of
editing techniques than those being used in the West, where Hollywood continuity editing had
become dominant. They began this process by testing basic reactions to the juxtaposition of
images and what the effects of such juxtapositions might be on the viewer. The Kuleshov
experiment is a good example. The basic notion that a subsequent image could affect the
viewer’s interpretation of the previous one was supported by behavioral psychology theories
popular at the time. Kuleshov concluded from his experiment that editing created the
opportunity to link entirely unrelated material in the minds of the viewers, who were no
longer seen as simply absorbing meaning from the images, but actually creating meaning by
associating the different images and drawing meaning from their juxtaposition.
Sergei Eisenstein took this idea a step further and tried to use montage to allow viewers to
participate in the film by continually working out in their own minds what the relationships
between shots might represent, and what the significance of the juxtapositions were. In other
words, viewers constantly had to actively invent a synthesis between shots. So for Eisenstein,
editing was about affecting the viewer’s psyche so that, rather than being manipulated, they
would come to an “intellectual perception of revolutionary history.”
Soviet montage used the editing to address cultural issues of power and ideology, not just
aesthetics, feelings, and interpretations of narrative or character. The documentary filmmaker
Dziga Vertov took these ideas further and made films that were about the process of
filmmaking itself. He was constantly trying to show the viewer how he made his films, in
order to create an even deeper awareness of what they revealed about the world. For example,
in his most famous film, The Man with a Movie Camera, Vertov uses a filmmaker as his
protagonist (you could argue that the camera itself is the protagonist) so that he can
constantly expose the way that filmic space and images are created. This strategy of drawing
attention to the process of filmmaking has become much more common since Vertov, but at
the time it was considered radical, even by other avant-garde filmmakers. The use of editing to
juxtapose images in a didactic, deconstructive process, was crucial to Vertov. His “film truth”
wasn’t just in the images themselves, as a so-called objective representation; it was in the way
that film could enact a form of critical perception that, when applied to the real world, would
reveal the actual conditions of society.