At the end of the First World War, Russia was in disarray. The Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin had overthrown the Tsar in 1917 and the country of 160 million people, mostly poor and illiterate, was torn apart from years of civil war. The first task of the ruling party was to consolidate and communicate and they turned to film as a mass communication medium
But the producers and technicians of the pre revolutionary cinema were capitalists and most of them were driven out or uncooperative with the Bolshevik government. Resources were scarce - what little they had was consolidated into a Cinema Committee within the New People’s Commissariat of Education. Headed by Lenin’s wife, the Cinema Committee founded a film school to train new filmmakers. This VGIK - All Union State Institute of Cinematography or Moscow Film School was founded in 1919 and would become the first Film School in the world.
The school primary function was to train people to make films to support the Bolshevik political party - making newsreels for the purposes of agitation and propaganda - agitprop.
But the Moscow film school wasn’t only a communist mouthpiece, faculty were also interested in the theory of film - one of the school’s cofounders Lev Kuleshov would bring new insight into the psychological workings of the motion picture.
The Kuleshov Workshops
Lev Kuleshov was one of the few prerevolutionary filmmakers to remain in Russia after 1917. Working as a newsreel cameraman during the Revolution, Kuleshov was instrumental in the founding of the VGIK. But Kuleshov’s superiors at the film school didn’t think the young 20-something could work well in a traditional curriculum setting so they let him conduct his own study group outside the formal structure of the school. This study group became known as the Kuleshov Workshop attracted the more radical and innovative students..
With film stock being so rare, Kuleshov spent most of the time making films without celluoid - writing scenarios and assembling actors in a sort of mock filmmaking exercise. But studies took a major turn when D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” played for the first time in Moscow in May of 1919. Lenin loved “Intolerance” for it’s plea for the proletariat and agitation quality and he ordered it to be screened all across the Soviet Union. Intolerance not only became the most influential film in Russia for the next 10 years, but also a subject of deep intense study at the Kuleshov Workshop. They dissected D.W. Griffith’s editing structure, even deconstructing the shots and reassembling them in hundreds of ways to examine the impact that different edits had.
Once new film stock was becoming available in 1922 as a result of a Soviet-German trade agreement, Kuleshov was ready to experiment with some of the lessons learned from studying Griffith’s film.
The first experiment would illustrate what has become known as the Kuleshov effect. Kuleshov took a shot of an expressionless face and created three different short films, editing the face with a bowl of hot soup, girl in the coffin, or the seductive woman on a couch. He showed the film to an audience and they raved about the range of emotion the actor portrayed from pensiveness over the thought of forgotten soup, mourning over the loss of a loved one and lust for the woman on the lounge. Even though we know the shot of the actor exactly the same in each scenario, audiences read meaning into the actor’s face by the nature of the shots around it.
In another experiment - Kuleshov took three shots - an actor smiling, a close up of a revolver, and the same actor looking frightened.
Shown to an audience the interpretation was the actor grew cowardly. But reverse the order of the shots, and now the audience interprets the actor as growing brave. It was the same exact shots, but the the order changed the meaning. Though other filmmakers like D.W. Griffith had practiced this type of editing instinctively, Kuleshov was the first to put it in theory - the meaning of film was not only in spatial reality - how things are arranged in a frame, but in the film strip itself - the sequence of the shot.
To further push the boundaries Kuleshov experimented with artificial landscapes through “creative geography” - Cutting together pieces of film captured in totally different locations, Kuleshov could created a believable fictionalized geography in film that didn’t exist in real life. This was a departure from the continuity editing of the West that sought to smooth cuts with techniques like cutting on action and the 180 degree rule - Kuleshov was demonstrating that film could transcend space - that the viewer would construct the geography as they were watching the film.
The creation of the film doesn’t start when the cameras roll - thats just getting the raw materials. A film is born in the edit which the Soviets called montage from the French verb monter which means to assemble.
This montage theory would see even greater refinement by one of Russia’s most famous silent filmmakers and student of the Kuleshov workshop: Sergei Eisenstein.