The Role of Russian Montage in Film

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During Russia's political transition from the revolution to the regime of Stalin, the Russian film industry was undergoing a paradigm shift in the production of their films. A revolutionary way of filmmaking was designed. The methods were so ahead of their time that they influenced a whole generation of filmmaking in Italy. Pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, Soviet montage was a way of passing ideas by combining images with different ideas. They explored the use of rhythm and pace of editing to dictate emotions of their audience. Unlike conventional filmmaking which is obsessed with the flow of thought and the fluidity of narration Russian montage was concerned with creating a film with an immense impact on the audience and getting the audience to understand the thematic aspects of the film. David Bordwell suggests that "this radical original style was used to build a narrative by formulating an artificial time and space or guiding the viewers' attention from on narrative to another to control rhythm create metaphor and other rhetorical points." (Bordwell, 1972)

A technique that arose as a stumble upon and immense need went to have an impact that it would have been known. After the Russian revolution, there was a paucity of films and filmmakers learn to recycle old reels. After the immense success of the Lev Kuleshov's groundbreaking experiment, it was discovered that different shots could manipulate how the audience felt about a character. In his film and his literature Eisenstein as one of the exponents of Russian montage, explored how different techniques such as changing screen time, the diegesis and especially the cinematography would impact the emotions of the audience. He was "an eloquent theoretician who believed that filmic meaning could be constructed by an assemblage of shots to create a new synthesis, an overall meaning that lies not within each part but the juxtaposition of the shots." (Bordwell, 1972) this was exemplified in his film Battleship-Potemkin


After the second world war, filmmakers across Europe adopted the Russian montage with a European twist to it.  They needed a way to bring to light and the travails of the citizens in post-war society. They needed a new way of showing the reality without being inconsiderate of the frail social struggles that prevailed at the time. Their new method neorealism was not original to them because it was an allusion to the style pioneered by the Soviets. The filmmakers needed to critic Mussolini's administration which was a stark contrast to the pomp and glamour of films produced by Hollywood. Their aspirations to show the realia in Italy in terms of the upheaval and social stratification led to the development of Italian neorealism.  Criticized as fueling propaganda, Italian neorealism showed the life of the normal citizen away from the lights and the cameras. Its typified mise-en-scene by showing people in their everyday lives. This meant that the preferred to shoot the films on site rather than in a set to provide the scenes with authenticity.

Battleship-Potemkin (1925) is a film whose aesthetics have become more renowned than the political exploits it intended to achieve. The film showed succinctly how montage should be leveraged to develop different themes in a film.  Founded on an insurrection of a platoon of sailors to their commanders. Their mutiny is brief and the ensuing events lead to an uneasy tension across the whole of the country, tensions that culminated in the Russian revolution. This movie is a pictorial masterpiece that embodies panache and understanding of cinematography. The scene in this film that embodies the aspects of a Russian montage is Act IV, the scene at the Odessa staircase. What starts as a normal scene, turns into a graphic melee with soldiers shooting indiscriminately at people. The carnage on the staircase thrust Eisenstein into the limelight and cemented the film's place in the hall of fame. The sequential action shown in the scene and the amount portrayed in the scene was prescient of its time.  The gruesome graphics and dramatic scenes unconventional cut shots and the movement in the scene narrate the scene vividly. The extended screen time of the scene also serves to tie the audience emotionally to the narrative. One of the most notable elements of the scene is the tumbling pram whose perceptive conception superseded the scenes narrative.  It exemplifies an antipathy with the scene and this opposing shot suggests that consideration should be given even in a war for children's rights.  This motion picture uses the synergy of disjointed shots to create a new meaning.

When the Tsar's Cossacks shot the people with wanton disregard for their rights, it provided an impetus for the Bolshevik revolution and spurred the proponents to its success. Eisenstein used rhythmic editing and montage but most notably on the interest of making the scene more realistic he used unprofessional actors. This was an apt strategy that was adopted by the Italians in their personalized version of the Soviet montage.  The film dissented from actor-based drama, it satirized communism and showed the realistic suffrage of the Russians.

The “Bicycle Thieves” (1948) is the film that exemplifies this Italian neorealism. It was "a low budget movie comprised of unprofessional actors who gave the films their realism." (Wilson, 2007) It showed a shattered society after the war and the struggle that the citizens went through to make ends meet. This film by Vittorio de Sica is a narration of the life of a poor menial worker trying to get by with his family in the dilapidated post-war Italian society. The Ricci family's travails show the dichotomy of life. Despite their hardest trials they always seem to get the toughest luck.   The main protagonist of the film Antonio is anguished as he tries to find his stolen bicycle which he uses as transportation on his daily endeavors. The bicycle is a crucial asset to him and it is essential if he has to go on doing his job.  His desperation nearly drives him to purloin one in front of his son.  The directors of the film go to great lengths to impute the emotions of Antonio on the audience. The plot is laced with a sequence of shots and long scenes and the unprofessional Antonio to make the scene realistic. Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) is an unprofessional actor and thus it removes any sense of choreography from the film. His issues are relatable with most of the society at the time and he is used as an emphasis of the financial strife, impoverished society and the moral decadence that existed at the time. The scenes are long and there is a continuity of time because of the intelligent editing. This draws out the emotion of the audience and makes them be engrossed in the main characters struggle with life. This film is neorealist because it has an ingrained political meaning. The film ends anticlimactically alluding to how the problems of the citizens in the society were sorted by the regime. The embitterment of Antonio Ricci and his family with the society is a sentiment that was shared by the society.

The director is witty to use the film to enhance the vested political statement in the film. He satirizes communism, unemployment, and widespread despondency. The film reifies honesty and social probity. Every scene is implicitly passionate about an idea. Despite it not being present throughout the film, the filmmaker is able to pass a political statement through the central character rather than making it about the whole society. The focal point of the narration exemplifies Stalin assertion that "the demise of a single person is a calamity but the affliction of a multitude is a statistic." (Hutton, 1961) this means that the suffrage of one character can stir more emotion than the tribulations of many.

            It is clear that "Italian neorealism borrows heavily from the Soviet montage style of production." (Bazin, 2011) The both use unprofessional actors to portray the real society and pass-heavy political messages. The actors are representative of a regular person's life and their plight is thus relatable to the society in the film. There is also a prevalent preference to location shooting than set shooting. Locations are fundamentally readymade, cheap and provide real icons that the audience can relate to.   They were also cheaper and it means that given the financial constraints at the time the films did not have undue pressure to deliver financial returns, unlike modern films. This freedom meant that the filmmakers could explore different themes and develop them without worrying about lack of financial backing.  The vested political messages in the Russian montage are continued in Italian neorealism. Despite the difference in times both styles endeavor to attain social rectitude. The films also had very lengthy takes and scenes in both styles to exhaust an idea before shifting to another. Unlike Russian montage which can be credited for springing an uprising in Russia, Italian neorealism's focus on localized issues did not provide a resolution to the problems raised. Their course was the opposition to the ban of Hollywood material imposed by the government and their campaign entailed showing the darkest aspects of the Italian community.

            In conclusion, both styles are seen to have an impact on modern films Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino who is born of an Italian father seems to develop it in their movies. The movie pulp fiction (1994) by "Quentin tarnation features this style prominently in the shooting scene." (Giovacchini, 2011) The parent style being soviet montage we see that it has evolved to meet the resources and the needs of modern cinema. Despite being an old style, they have had an indelible mark in filmography and especially the development of themes.


Bordwell, David. “the idea of montage in soviet art and film.” Cinema journal, vol. 11,

 no. 2, 1972, pp. 9–17.

Bazin, André, and Bert Cardullo, eds. André Bazin and Italian Neorealism.

A&C Black, 2011.

Giovacchini, Saverio, and Robert Sklar, eds. Global Neorealism: The Transnational

 History of a Film Style. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2011.

Hutton, Joseph Bernard. Stalin: the miraculous Georgian. Das Segel, 1961.

Wilson, Kristi M., and Laura E. Ruberto. Italian neorealism and global cinema.

Wayne State University Press, 2007.

September 25, 2023




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