How Soviet Cinema Shaped the Film Industry

July 3, 2021 • Carolina Azevedo

The Beginnings

Odds are, if you study film or would like to be a filmmaker, you have learnt about many of the theories of Soviet filmmakers such as Eisenstein’s dialectical montage or the Kuleshov effect. The early 1900s film school that was created in the newly formed Soviet Union is today recognized as one of the most important movements in all of cinema history, pioneering techniques and the ideals fundamental for filmmaking as an art medium and mass communicator.

The history of Soviet cinema starts with that of the USSR, in 1917, when the socialist Vladimir Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders began looking at cinema as a tactic to unify the nation. To Lenin, film became a propaganda tool whose power of quick and effective communication had the capacity to organize all audiences into understanding concepts that were fundamental to the development of the union. As the leader himself said, the Soviet Union would come to believe that “cinema is for us the most important of the arts”, which would lead to the founding of the “All-Union State Institute of Cinematography” — the VGIK.

The Kuleshov Effect

At the institute the history of cinema as we know it today began, particularly with professor Lev Kuleshov. The filmmaker’s most well known experiment is a short movie in which he intercuts the same shots of an actor’s face with several different shots — a bowl of soup, a dead girl, and a beautiful woman. To the audience, the actor’s face would acquire a different expression after each image he saw — hunger, grief, and desire respectively — even though the exact same shot of the actor was shown after each take. The professor named the phenomenon the “Kuleshov effect”, explaining that images carry different values if looked at alone or in conjunction with other images.

Thus was born the concept of editing as a means of locating subjects in time and space in order to create something with meaning and intention. Kuleshov’s technique is responsible for allowing editors to better control the tone and meaning found in their films, conceiving montage as an expressive process without which no meaning could ever have been found in cinema, making it art with little to no ideological or symbolic force.

An example of how this technique is so deep-seated within our minds through the process of watching movies lies in chase scenes. Police chases are often composed in cinema by interweaving scenes of police and outlaws which are shot apart. If only policemen running were shown the scene would make no sense to the audience, and the same goes for the other subjects in the scene. Interweaving the shots is what gives it meaning. This allows the viewer to understand what is happening while setting the scene’s tone and heightening the tension.

Sergei Eisenstein and the Dialectical Montage

One of Kuleshov’s most brilliant students at the institute was Sergei Eisenstein, the filmmaker and intellectual responsible for developing a theory of editing based on montage as a method of conveying meaning, founded on the Marxist concept of dialectic. As a concept, Eisenstein’s dialectical montage seems hard to understand, but in practice he simply elevated Kuleshov’s effect. That is, for Eisenstein, meaning in motion pictures is often generated by the collision of opposing shots: as said by Karl Marx, the conflict between a force (thesis) and a counterforce (antithesis) produces a new phenomenon (synthesis), in this case, a feeling, a thought that could not have been generated without that action. The intention behind his new technique was to “assault an audience with calculated emotional shocks for agitation” fulfilling the primary reason as to why these people were making movies in the first place: propaganda.

Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925)

The concept can be seen put to action in two of Eisenstein’s most famous movies: Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925). Strike is a semi documentary on the brutal oppression the first strike against the tsarist government received when trying to fight for the rights of the working class. The frenetic montage sequences that carry out the story of the struggle of the proletariat end in a scene that best sums up the director’s technique: the famous sequence in which the massacre of the working class is intercut with shots of a bull being violently slaughtered.

In the same way, director Frances Ford Coppola uses the technique in reference to said scene at the end of his masterpiece, Apocalypse Now in which scenes of. Willard killing Colonel Kurtz are intertwined with scenes of people slaughtering an ox. Both scenes combine different, apparently meaningless images which together strongly convey to the audience the idea of extreme violence against or oppression of the subjects, giving it so much meaning that it can be nauseating to watch.

Vera Chytilová’s Daisies (1966)

The technique has been repeated over and over by western cinema and can be seen in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey’s bone scene. Kubrick intercuts shots of bones and images of satellites, conveying, with these two neutral images, the idea of evolution. Another example is when, in Vera Chytilová’s Daisies, shots of decaying food are intertwined with those of the girls, conveying the idea of moral decay within Soviet Czechoslovakia.

Dziga Vertov and the Power of Documentary

Aside from technical advancements, Soviet cinema’s greatest legacy can be said to be the invention of the documentary by Dziga Vertov. Beginning his career as a photographer, Vertov would come to be the grandfather of what we see today as documentaries, or cinema verité. Through his theory of the cinema-eye, the director aimed at a cinema “based on the organization of camera-recorded documentary material” as a means for creating potent filmmaking. His most famous documentary, Man with a Movie Camera (1929), is a piece that proves his point about cinema verité by critiquing cinema through images of the frantic 1929 Moscow.

Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929)

Through the creation of this new non-fiction genre, Vertov would come to influence every single documentarist from then on — from Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker to Petra Costa and Joshua Oppenheimer. One of the best examples of the influence the director had within cinema’s history is the Dziga Vertov Group, a collective of filmmakers led by Godard, whose aim, like Vertov, was to show the struggles of the working class and other minorities through a combination of creativity and reality.

Other directors who draw direct influences from Vertov are Chris Marker and Jean Rouch, who remarked that in his filmmaking “my sole intention was a homage to Dziga Vertov… who completely invented the kind of film we do today”. What these and many more documentarists have in common with Vertov is the belief that the voice of ordinary people can be amplified through their non-fiction cinema, reaching those who need to hear it in order to try and make the change they are eagerly urging for.

Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983)

One of the main legacies of Soviet cinema is how it served as a manual for revolutionary cinema, an art form as a political movement, a revolution led by the love for cinema and for the people that has echoed for over a hundred years, into our screens and our minds. From Eisenstein’s dialectical montage to Vertov’s documentaries, a little of Soviet cinema lives inside the minds of every filmmaker and cinephile, as these innovators were responsible for creating cinema as we know it today.


Written for Unpublished Zine



Estudante de jornalismo e mais uma partícula do pensamento revolucionário que não se conforma com a simples ilustração das aparências

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Carolina Azevedo

Estudante de jornalismo e mais uma partícula do pensamento revolucionário que não se conforma com a simples ilustração das aparências