Eisenstein’s Introduces New Film Editing Techniques

Sergei Eisenstein created his masterpiece by splicing segments of film shot at many locations, an approach that many film directors subsequently adopted.

Summary of Event

After the successful Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the leaders of the Communist Party (especially Vladimir Ilich Lenin) launched a massive propaganda effort to win support for their new government from all segments of Soviet society. Propaganda;Bolsheviks Lenin saw motion pictures as potentially the most effective tool not only for gaining public acceptance for Communist rule but also for convincing citizens to make the sacrifices necessary to build a socialist economic system. Accordingly, he authorized the creation of a government bureau to commission the making of “agitprop” (agitational propaganda) films to elicit the desired responses from the public. Lenin’s action set in motion a chain of events that eventually led to the production of a motion picture titled Bronenosets Potyomkin (1925; Potemkin) that revolutionized filmmaking around the world. [kw]Eisenstein’s Potemkin Introduces New Film Editing Techniques (1925)[Eisensteins Potemkin Introduces New Film Editing Techniques (1925)]
[kw]Potemkin Introduces New Film Editing Techniques, Eisenstein’s (1925)
[kw]Film Editing Techniques, Eisenstein’s Potemkin Introduces New (1925)
[kw]Editing Techniques, Eisenstein’s Potemkin Introduces New Film (1925)
Potemkin (film)
Motion pictures;Potemkin
Filmmaking techniques
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Sergei Eisenstein[Eisenstein]
Soviet Union;motion pictures
[g]Russia;1925: Eisenstein’s Potemkin Introduces New Film Editing Techniques[06210]
[g]Ukraine;1925: Eisenstein’s Potemkin Introduces New Film Editing Techniques[06210]
[c]Motion pictures;1925: Eisenstein’s Potemkin Introduces New Film Editing Techniques[06210]
Eisenstein, Sergei
Tissé, Éduard
Lenin, Vladimir Ilich
[p]Lenin, Vladimir Ilich;agitprop films
Kuleshov, Lev Vladimirovich

Early in 1925, the Soviet government issued an order for the production of an agitprop film commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the unsuccessful Revolution of 1905. To direct the film, government officials chose twenty-six-year-old Sergei Eisenstein, who had already directed several very effective films. Eisenstein, educated as a civil engineer, had joined the Communist Party early and had worked diligently for its success during the revolution. After the revolution, he became interested in theater and joined the Prolitkult Theater (an official government agency, as were all groups involved in the arts). He rapidly became disenchanted with theater because small stages limited his ideas of dramatic productions, and he subsequently turned to the relatively new medium of motion pictures.

After working with Lev Vladimirovich Kuleshov (who had been involved in filmmaking since its introduction in czarist Russia) for several years, in 1924 Eisenstein received permission to direct an agitprop film titled Stracha (1925; Strike), which enjoyed great success. The effectiveness of his first project resulted in his being chosen to direct the commemorative film, which was tentatively titled 1905. The government apparently envisioned a film that would re-create the entire yearlong revolt against the czarist government in 1904 and 1905.

Eisenstein, in collaboration with several writers, created a hundred-page script for the film, detailing dozens of events to be filmed at more than thirty locations from Leningrad to the Black Sea. He and his crew began filming in Leningrad on March 31, 1925. When, in August, cloudy weather made filming in Leningrad difficult, Eisenstein and his crew moved to the Black Sea port of Odessa. Even before the move, Eisenstein had concluded that the original script was much too ambitious in scope. When he saw the massive marble steps leading from Odessa down to the seashore, he resolved to discard the film already shot and to concentrate instead on one event that would epitomize the entire revolution: the mutiny of the sailors aboard the battleship Potemkin.

In making the film, Eisenstein introduced two innovations that have profoundly influenced the making of motion pictures ever since. The first was the use of “typage” in choosing actors, and the second was the use of montage editing techniques to heighten the emotional impact of the film.

According to Eisenstein’s theory of typage, a director should study each character in the script and determine what physical and mental traits might be found in the character’s “type.” The director should then employ a person who exhibits those traits to play the character rather than depend on professional actors. The character of an Orthodox priest who figures prominently in Potemkin was in reality a gardener whom Eisenstein concluded displayed all the traits usually associated with a priest.

The montage editing techniques that Eisenstein perfected for his motion picture undoubtedly became his most important contribution to the evolution of filmmaking. Montage, motion pictures “Montage” refers to the splicing together of segments of film to heighten dramatic effect. One of the most powerful scenes in Potemkin occurs during the massacre on the marble steps (arguably the most famous sequence in motion-picture history), when an old woman wearing pince-nez asks the Cossacks to stop the slaughter. Eisenstein shows a close-up of the Cossack swinging his sword, followed by another close-up of the woman with her glasses broken, blood spurting from her eye. The film never shows the sword striking the woman, but because of the placement of the shots, the audience is left in no doubt as to what has happened.

In several scenes, Eisenstein introduced a technique subsequently adopted by many directors called “breaking from real time.” In one particular sequence, the audience sees a sailor, disgusted with the food he is forced to eat, break the plate of one of his officers. In real time, this action would have taken only a second. Eisenstein filmed the breaking of the plate from nine different angles, spliced the shots together, and created a four-second sequence that produced a greatly enhanced effect on the audience.

Finally, Eisenstein also introduced several innovative camera techniques during the making of Potemkin that were widely copied by most subsequent filmmakers. Camera techniques, motion pictures In collaboration with cameraman Éduard Tissé, he constructed a trolley for the camera that enabled the cameraman to descend the Odessa steps with the actors. He ordered another camera to be strapped to the waist of a circus acrobat to capture the movement as the acrobat ran, jumped, and fell down the steps.

The film that ultimately emerged from Eisenstein’s tremendous burst of creativity did not entirely please the Communist leadership, although its propaganda effect was undeniable. Outside the Soviet Union, however, motion-picture critics hailed Potemkin as a masterpiece.


When Potemkin debuted in Moscow in January, 1926, it stirred immediate controversy in the ranks of the Communist Party and the Soviet artistic community. Many of Eisenstein’s rivals in cinematic production accused him of putting art before propaganda. Some of his enemies in the party hierarchy dismissed the film as a decadent bourgeois documentary. Eisenstein’s relationship with the Soviet bureaucracy became strained, and his reputation never fully recovered. Although he continued to direct films in the Soviet Union, the government declined to distribute many of them.

In Western Europe and the United States, Potemkin won instant acclaim. American film stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford traveled to Moscow in July, 1926, to view the film. Fairbanks, in a widely quoted interview after seeing the film, declared that Eisenstein’s film had at last mastered the science of motion. Some months later, Fairbanks, along with German actor Emil Jannings and producer Max Reinhardt, endorsed Potemkin as the greatest motion picture made to that time. Fairbanks’s praise heightened American audiences’ anticipation of the film, which finally premiered in New York City at the Biltmore Theater on December 5, 1926.

Film viewers in the United States were enthusiastic about Eisenstein’s film, and American film critics even more so. One critic writing for the Christian Science Monitor correctly predicted that Potemkin would make motion-picture history as a model of how films should be made. The National Board of Review of the motion-picture industry chose the film as the best of the year and identified it as a perfect re-creation of a historical event. Ironically, this last bit of praise was totally undeserved. No slaughter of innocents occurred on the Odessa steps in 1905, as depicted in the film’s most famous scene; the director fabricated the entire event. The mutiny aboard the Potemkin was not an expression of revolutionary ideology, as Eisenstein portrayed it; rather, it was a protest against deplorable conditions. Eisenstein continued a trend that has only rarely been reversed in filmmaking, that of creating history rather than re-creating it.

Potemkin’s reception in the West somewhat rejuvenated Eisenstein’s standing with Soviet officials. They allowed him to direct the agitprop films Octyabr (1927; October: Or, Ten Days That Shook the World) and Generalnaya Linya (1929; The General Line), both of which employed many of the techniques pioneered in Potemkin. In 1929, Paramount Pictures brought Eisenstein to Hollywood but ultimately rejected the scripts he submitted for two proposed films, Sutter’s Gold and An American Tragedy. American novelist Upton Sinclair then arranged for Eisenstein to make an epic motion picture about the Mexican revolution, but Soviet officials recalled him to Moscow before he completed the film. An American studio released some of the footage from the Mexican venture as Thunder over Mexico in 1933. Thunder over Mexico (film) This film also employed many of the techniques pioneered in Potemkin and, judging from the wide adoption of such techniques by American directors, heavily influenced the evolution of U.S. cinema.

Eisenstein’s masterpiece confirmed motion-picture making as a true art form. Although Eisenstein never received the acclaim in the Soviet Union that his work merited, Potemkin vindicated Lenin’s view of motion pictures as potentially the most effective medium for molding a particular point of view among the masses. The film evokes powerful emotions even among modern viewers: revulsion at the deplorable conditions among the lower classes depicted in the film’s scenes; disgust with the arrogant and ruthless officers, czarist officials, and priests; moral outrage at the massacre of civilians on the Odessa steps. Eisenstein achieved this tremendous emotional impact by pioneering techniques that continue to dominate filmmaking. Potemkin (film)
Motion pictures;Potemkin
Filmmaking techniques
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Sergei Eisenstein[Eisenstein]
Soviet Union;motion pictures

Further Reading

  • Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. 4th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. Identifies Potemkin as an epochal event in motion-picture history. Describes Eisenstein’s innovative techniques in language lay readers can understand and locates the film in its proper place from the perspective of world cinema history.
  • Eisenstein, Sergei M. “The Composition of Potemkin.” In The Emergence of Film Art, edited by Lewis Jacobs. New York: Hopkinson and Blake, 1969. Eisenstein’s explanation in his own words of the thought process and chance happenings that resulted in his masterpiece. Invaluable to those who wish to understand Potemkin.
  • _______. Potemkin. Translated by Gillon R. Aitken. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968. The complete script of the film, annotated by Eisenstein himself. Difficult reading, but worthwhile to those seeking in-depth knowledge about the famous film.
  • Fabe, Marilyn. Closely Watched Films: An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film Technique. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Presents analytic tools for understanding the narrative structure of films. Chapter 2 is devoted to examination of Eisenstein’s use of montage in Potemkin. Includes illustrations, glossary, bibliography, and index.
  • Kauffman, Stanley. “Potemkin.” In Great Film Directors: A Critical Anthology, edited by Leo Braudy and Morris Dickstein. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Identifies Eisenstein as perhaps the most important director of his era because of his perfection of montage in Potemkin. Provides informative explanations of Eisenstein’s techniques.
  • Lawder, Standish D. “Eisenstein and Constructivism.” In Great Film Directors: A Critical Anthology, edited by Leo Braudy and Morris Dickstein. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Attempts to show that Eisenstein’s films, especially Potemkin, were heavily influenced by a banned artistic movement in the Soviet Union called constructivism.
  • Leyda, Jay. Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film. 3d ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. Shows that Eisenstein’s genius did not appear out of a vacuum but instead drew heavily on the work of Russian filmmakers who preceded him, especially his mentor, Kuleshov. Also clearly demonstrates the influence that Eisenstein had on subsequent Soviet directors.
  • Macdonald, Dwight. “Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Others.” In The Emergence of Film Art, edited by Lewis Jacobs. New York: Hopkinson and Blake, 1969. Portrays Eisenstein as an important member of a trend in Soviet filmmaking, but not as an epochal genius, as many other critics have seen him.
  • Murray, Edward. Ten Film Classics: A Re-Viewing. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. Maintains that the true greatness of a film lies in its ability to communicate with audiences far removed from its original place and time. Concludes that Potemkin possesses that rare quality and thus must be considered a true masterpiece of cinematic art.
  • Nizhny, Vladimir. Lessons with Eisenstein. Edited and translated by Ivor Montagu and Jay Leyda. 1962. Reprint. New York: Hill & Wang, 2000. Extremely thorough examination of the innovations that appeared in Eisenstein’s films, especially Potemkin. Some readers may be put off by the overt Marxist-Leninist philosophy expounded by the author.

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