Eisenstein’s mastery of film editing and montage

When watching a film, we mostly focus on how a story unfolds or powerful acting from actors like Toshiro Mifune or Marlon Brando. Often, we forget to appreciate how a film is edited and put together by a director.  Editing is important in film making because it helps lay out and piece a story together.  Without it, films and television shows would run longer than necessary and crucial acting scenes in a story would not have the same emotional impact.  Imagine a sword fighting scene with Toshiro Mifune suddenly ending without explanation or a big payoff. We would all be outrage.  That is why editing matters in films.

Sergei Eisenstein, a Soviet film director, was one of the first directors to effectively use film editing and montage in his films. What does montage mean? According to video editor, Richard Azia, “montage literally translated from French is assembly, the process by which an editor takes two pieces of film of tape and combines them to emphasize their meaning. It is a method by which through two unrelated shots we may create a third and different meaning.” Basically, an example of a montage could be a shot of a man taking a Coke bottle from a refrigerator and another shot of an empty bottle. What do these two shots mean? It means that the man drank a bottle full of Coke.

Eisenstein’s first film, Strike, marked the beginning of his effective use of film editing and montage.  In Strike, Eisenstein shot and edited the film in such a way that we, as an audience sympathize, with the factory workers who work in poor conditions, while the rich investors live life on easy street.  Perhaps, the most powerful use of film editing and montage that Eisenstein uses comes at the climax of the film, where the factory workers and other civilians are shot in a field by Czarist soldiers with alternating scenes of cows being slaughtered thrown in.  Believe you and me, the scene makes me want to forget about eating hamburgers for awhile.

Why is this use of alternating between soldiers shooting factory workers and other civilians with the slaughtering of cows, so powerful use of film editing and montage?  It’s hard to put into words, but it’s obvious what Eisenstein is trying to say with the execution of the factory workers and killing of the cows.  That the factory workers and other civilians who were gunned down are no different than the cows, which are slaughtered for food.  Basically put, by editing these two different scenes together, Eisenstein shows how two unrelated shots can produce a shocking and gut-wrenching scene.

Like Strike, The Battleship Potemkin, is another film where Eisenstein uses effective film editing and montage.  In the film, the sailors on the Potemkin have a mutiny and take over the ship, where they dock nearby at Odessa.  The city folk are supportive of the sailors, but in typical Eisenstein fashion, the city folk are gunned down on the Odessa steps by Cossacks working for the Czar in a morbid rhythmic way.  Eisenstein shoots the scene in a way that conveys a rhythm because the Cossacks seemingly keep coming down the steps and civilians keep dying as they flee.  The scene where two mothers are shot and their kids (one of them a baby) dying on the steps .

Once again, the Odessa steps massacre scene, highlights, Eisenstein’s effective use of film editing and montage to elicit a reaction from the audience.  After all, seeing a mother and her child die is bad enough, but when two are killed on screen. It’s agonizing, but that’s the point.  Eisenstein is trying to get the audience to sympathize with the city folk and sailors who are both fighting to improve their lives. By editing, The Battleship Potemkin, this way, Eisenstein understands how film editing and montage can be effectively used to move a story.

Alexander Nevsky, like Strike and The Battleship Potemkin, is another film that captures Eisenstein’s motif of killing civilians and kids (do you sense a pattern like I do?) to elicit sympathy and outrage.  In the case of the outrage, the audience is supposed to loathe the Teutonic Knights, Catholic knights of the Holy Roman Empire, who massacre a city’s population.  Eisenstein shoots a scene in the film where it looks like a child is thrown into a fire.  This scene like other Eisenstein death scenes is effective because we are supposed to be sympathetic towards the population of the city and hate these Catholic invaders.

Eisenstein portrays Alexander Nevsky (our hero) and his army as good and honorable people willing to die to stop the Teutonic Knights from killing any more Russians.  This is pretty effective, especially when the Russians and Knights meet up at the “Battle of the Ice”, where we see the Teutonic Knight dressed up in sinister fashion and coming into the battle in a slow motion like state.  When both sides collide, it is chaotic because it is sometimes confusing to tell which army is coming from.   I think editing and shooting the sometimes confusing direction of both armies coming in, is effective because often in battle, aren’t the battles themselves chaotic and confusing sometimes? Portraying the sinister look of the Teutonic Knights and their Catholic ways, as opposed to the Russians’ lack of any religious expression, with the exception of the images of the Russian Orthodox Church and its bells , is another way of trying to have the audience sympathetic to the Russian (really, Soviet state) way of life.

Overall, film editing and montage are important in film making because they help move a story along and elicit reactions from the audience.  Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet director, was one of the most effective directors in film making to use film editing and montage to cause an audience to react to the characters and story of his films.  Workers being gun down, citizens massacred on the Odessa steps, and a population of Russians in a city wiped out by Catholic invaders were all filmed by Eisenstein to elicit strong reactions against enemies of the Soviet society that was built up after the 1917 Revolution.  In the end, Eisenstein was one of the best directors to use film editing and montage effectively.

ETA: Hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving break !

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25 comments on “Eisenstein’s mastery of film editing and montage

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