Sergei Eisenstein along with D.W. Griffith are the two pioneering geniuses of modern cinema. Though Griffith would create the language of continuity editing through practice and practical problem solving, Eisenstein would approach film intellectually. Griffith and his American contemporaries used film and editing techniques to enhance emotional impact almost as an extenstion of 19th century theatrical method, whereas Eisenstein used editing to break free of the confines of time and space and communicate abstract ideas in a new and modern way.
Battleship Potemkin would be Eisenstein’s most critically acclaimed and influential film. Shot in 1925 as part of a Twentieth anniversary of the 1905 Revolution against the Tsar, Potemkin took ten weeks to shoot with the famous Odessa Steps sequence shot in seven days. The editing took another 2 weeks to accomplish - running 86 minutes long, Potemkin contained 1,346 shots.
Battleship Potemkin was an international success - a clear win for Eisenstein and his use of montage to elicit emotional response from the viewer. So influential was the film that Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels called it “a marvelous film without equal in the cinema ... anyone who had no firm political conviction could become a Bolshevik after seeing the film”
The film was pure propaganda - but the best ever made. Key to Potemkin’s success was the editing - which is where Eisenstein begins to articulate his most important contribution to film theory. Eisenstein, an true intellectual and Marxist, saw montage as a process which operated in the same way as a Marxist dialectic - which is a way of looking at the course of history as the perpetual conflict in which a thesis or force collides with an anti-thesis or counterforce to create a new phenomenon called a synthesis.
Eisenstein saw the collision of a one shot or montage cell with another as creating conflict that produced a new idea. This new idea would become it’s own thesis and collide with another anti-thesis creating yet another synthesis idea. Again and again these dialectics build up in a film like a series of controlled explosions in an internal combustion engine, driving the film forward.
On the subject of editing Eisenstein lists five methods of montage or how these collisions between shots can be created each one building up in complexity.
The first and most basic is the Metric - cutting based purely on the length of shot. This elicits the most basic emotional response, that of tempo which can be raised or lowered for effect.
Next is Rhythmic montage - which is much like metric montage in that it’s based on time and tempo, but rhythmic concerns itself with what’s in the frame - cutting in tempo and with action. In this shot from Potemkin, the rhythm of the marching solidiers legs drives the movement in the sequence beyond the basic cut..
Next in complexity the Tonal montage which isn’t concerned with time but with the tone of the shot - from lighting, shadows and shapes in the frame. Cutting between shots of different aesthetic tones creates these Marxist dialectics
Above that is Overtonal - which is on a larger scale macro cell that combines metric, rhythmic and tonal montage - essentially how whole sequences play against each other.
Then lastly was the type of montage that most interested Eisenstein - the Intellectual or ideological montage. Whereas the previous methods focused on inducing emotional response, the intellectual montage sought to express abstract ideas by creating relationships between opposing visual intellectual concepts.
A simple example in Battleship Potemkin is the intercutting of the priest tapping on a cross with an officer tapping on the hilt of a sword - to express a message of corrupt association of the church and the state. Another example is the final sequence in the Odessa steps. Three quick shots of a rising stone lion - representing the rise of proletariat.
So invested in the intellectual montage - Eisenstein dedicated his next film, “October” - a 10th anniversary recreation of the Bolshevik Revolution, to exploring its possibilities. Running at just under three hours with lots of intellectual and ideological montage imagery - October was an experimental film of immense proportions that ultimately left audiences cold.
The wild cuts were simply too much for audiences to follow. While intellectual montage can evoke deep abstract ideas, without being rooted in a strong narrative frame work, as it was in Battleship Potemkin, the intellectual montage was too much abstraction for audiences to follow.
Some film theorists such as French film critic Andre Bazin claimed that dialectical montage was too manipulative and too totalitarian in the way it seeks to control the audience by ignoring natural spatial and time relationships found in continuity editing. The debate may be a matter of taste but the effects of early Soviet Silent filmmakers and their montage theory would be refined and pushed even further in the 1950s as the French New Wave as well as Hollywood visionaries like Alfred Hitchcock began incorporating montage as part of their story telling technique.
With both the continuity style of D.W. Griffith with emphasis on clear understandable space and time and the Soviet montage style which ignored space and time to create impact through the juxtaposition of different images, the rudiments of cinematic language emerged in roughly the first 30 years of Cinema’s existence, quickly becoming a nuanced and intricate art form through experimentation and theory. These first practitioners, who studied and built on each other’s work, would in turn be studied and imitated by the next generation of filmmakers - on and on carrying the human tradition of storytelling.