How did Sergei Eisenstein Convert Film into A Language?
When did watching a film become so complicated? Once upon a time, the spectacle of cinema was watching a train enter a tunnel. Now, director’s convert film images into elaborate metaphors only understood by a keen eye and notetaking.
Welcome to our blog post where we name and shame the man who made understanding films so darn confusing. If you have not read our previous article on Lev Kuleshov (who is also to blame for this disgrace), I suggest you do. But, as a quick recap:
Kuleshov is one of the first directors to experiment with film editing techniques to expand on a narrative. His experiment proved the audience has an active role in interpreting the images seen in film. So, if you cut a shot of tomato soup with a man blankly looking at a camera, the audience will interpret the man as hungry. Even though the man is not telling the audience he is hungry.
[Enter Sergei Eisenstein]
Kuleshov found that the audience could interpret time, space and meaning in a film through montage editing (the assembly of shots).
Do you remember this scene from Rocky?
The audience watches a timelapse of Rocky preparing to fight through quick cuts of his progress. Without the director explicitly telling the audience, we understand Rocky is progressing with his training, and time has passed in the plot.
It is here Sergei Eisenstein’s theory on montage begins. Eisenstein attended Russia’s film school, and Kuleshov inspired him to theorise further on how montage editing could feed the audience information.
As a result, Eisenstein published an essay theorising five different methods of montage directors could (and should) use.
The 5 Methods of Montage
Eisenstein was a very clever man. But his theory on montage is confusing to understand (especially if you try to read his essay). So, here is a very simplified version of each of his five methods of montage:
1. Metric Montage
We begin with the easiest method of montage editing: metric montage. This method follows the rule of a musical metre. So, a director will cut each shot to the same number of seconds or still frames to create a regular pace (or beat) in a scene. However, the director disregards the visual content, favouring metred cutting instead.
2. Rhythmic Montage
Obviously, continuity is a massive problem if you disregard the visual content by favouring metre instead. Hence, the development of rhythmic montage. Rhythmic montage focuses on matching the visual pacing (action and narrative) with the musical score. It is one of the most famous montage methods ever used, and filmmakers have now parodied the method to death.
3. Tonal Montage
From here, it becomes more complicated. Tonal montage is a method that considers the emotional feeling of an image, and directors will cut shots of a similar tone together. The purpose is to evoke an emotion from your audience by using images that elicit that said feeling; for example, a baby sleeping will evoke a sense of calmness.
4. Overtonal Montage
Rather than solely focusing on the emotional tone, overtonal montage incorporates the film’s more prominent themes (political, religious, or philosophical). For Up, the theme is growing old. This montage method is used predominantly in propaganda films as political themes and emotions are entangled together.
5. Intellectual Montage
Finally, the most sophisticated (and complicated) method is the intellectual montage. To be honest, you have to be intellectual to understand intellectual montage in film. Mainly because it is up to you, the viewer, to interpret the meaning between two scenes cut together.
This method is easier to understand with an example rather than an explanation. Let’s look at a scene from Eisenstein’s film Strike (warning: video has graphic images). The scene cuts between the military violently suppressing a worker's revolt with a scene of a cow being slaughtered.
At first, it appears that these two scenes run parallel. However, Eisenstein intended you to be an active audience member whose role is to combine the two scenes and work out the metaphor. By cutting between the workers and the bull, the viewer should associate the workers with livestock.
This technique is still used today, with another great example being A Very British Scandal when the director cuts between a shot of the Duke sticking a pin through a butterfly with a clip of his wife banging on the door. Today, the symbolism is blaring, but in the 1920’s it was a revolutionary change in film editing.
Film As Language
Thankfully, Eisenstein expands on what he means by intellectual montage by comparing film editing to a language.
Okay, not the Western language we all know and use. No, Eisenstein compared film editing to hieroglyphs.
As we all know, hieroglyphs were an ancient Egyptian writing system that used a variety of symbols as a writing system. Individually, the character (eye, water, snake) stands for exactly what it depicts. But, if you combine two symbols, you can create a new concept that was initially undepictable. For instance, if you wanted to express crying, you would connect the eye with the water.
Similarly, by combining two separate film shots in a scene, Eisenstein could create allegories and new ideas within the film’s narrative.
Too clever for his own good?
I can’t deny that Eisenstein has hugely influenced how an audience reads and understands a film. Film critics still claim Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) is one of the best films ever created because of its montage editing. Just watch the epic “Odessa Steps” scene to understand how ahead of its time the film was.
However, there is such a thing as being a little too clever.
And, unfortunately, Eisenstein’s innovative film editing became his downfall as audiences struggled (and still struggle) to understand his later films. Critics even condemned Eisenstein for self-indulging in his montage theory and over-complicating the narrative with jarring cuts between scenes.
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Yet, Eisenstein’s theory sparked more than a few editing techniques for directors to use. Soviet montage theory has changed the audience’s role when watching a film. No longer is a narrative painted by the director. But instead, a film’s meaning is left to the viewer’s eye - much like reading a book or studying a painting.