Kuleshov and Pudovkin Introduce Montage to Filmmaking Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Lev Vladimirovich Kuleshov and his pupil Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin, through their experimental work, theoretical writings, and films, brought Soviet cinema to a high level of achievement.

Summary of Event

By 1927, the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Soviet cinema had reached the pinnacle of international success. Filmmakers formulated basic doctrines and theories, guiding the young film industry with the support and approval of the government. Cinema, thus encouraged, developed as a singular art form, with its own principles and aesthetics, different from other art. Filmmakers rose to the challenge by creating films that were both politically pleasing and invigorated with artistic dynamism. [kw]Kuleshov and Pudovkin Introduce Montage to Filmmaking (1927) [kw]Pudovkin Introduce Montage to Filmmaking, Kuleshov and (1927) [kw]Montage to Filmmaking, Kuleshov and Pudovkin Introduce (1927) [kw]Filmmaking, Kuleshov and Pudovkin Introduce Montage to (1927) Motion pictures;editing Montage, motion pictures Filmmaking techniques Soviet Union;motion pictures [g]Russia;1927: Kuleshov and Pudovkin Introduce Montage to Filmmaking[06760] [c]Motion pictures;1927: Kuleshov and Pudovkin Introduce Montage to Filmmaking[06760] Kuleshov, Lev Vladimirovich Pudovkin, Vsevolod Illarionovich Eisenstein, Sergei Vertov, Dziga Lenin, Vladimir Ilich [p]Lenin, Vladimir Ilich;Soviet cinema

Ten years earlier, in March, 1917, the czar was replaced by a provisional government headed by Aleksandr Fyodorovich Kerensky. The government moved to abolish film censorship and even permitted production of anticzarist pictures. In October of that same year, the Bolsheviks, headed by Vladimir Ilich Lenin, overthrew the government, and the Soviet era began. Lenin was acutely aware of the importance of cinema in spreading the development of Communism and consolidating his power among the vast population. He declared, “Of all the arts for us the cinema is the most important.” He created a formula that came to be known as “Lenin’s proportion,” which established a ratio of entertainment films to such educational motion pictures as travelogues, studies of cultures, and anticapitalist statements that could be played at Soviet theaters.

Although Lenin had in mind a cinema specializing in agitation and propaganda, two individuals emerged who changed the projected course of Soviet cinema. The first was Dziga Vertov, now hailed as the father of Soviet newsreel and documentary film. Born Denis Kaufman (brother of noted filmmakers Boris and Mikhail Kaufman), he took the name of Dziga Vertov, which in Russian means “spinning top,” a reference to the action of winding film. His success came through clever editing and camera manipulation. Vertov gathered together and inspired a number of documentarists who believed life should be filmed as it really is, not staged with a narrative format. The group called itself Kinoki (cinema eyes). They believed fictional films were unimportant, opium for the masses.

The other seminal individual in Soviet motion pictures was Lev Vladimirovich Kuleshov. Heavily influenced and inspired by American film-editing techniques, particularly the work of D. W. Griffith, Kuleshov realized that film was a plastic art form that could be manipulated by a filmmaker. He used experiments to prove that film must be edited and constructed frame by frame. Taking Griffith’s epic 1916 masterpiece Intolerance, with its four interlocking stories, he completely reedited the footage into very different combinations.

In one of Kuleshov’s best-known film experiments, two people—a man and a woman in two separate shots—are seen walking in different districts of Moscow. In a third shot, they meet, shake hands, and look off in the distance as the man points. The fourth shot shows the American White House followed by the final shot, the couple climbing the steps of a famous Moscow cathedral. Through five different shots taken at different times and places, Kuleshov created a cinematic illusion of spatial and temporal unity. In another example, he photographed various parts of different women, then cut the film in such a way as to synthesize a new entity. Perhaps his most famous experiment involved using the expressionless face of matinee idol Ivan Mozhukin. Kuleshov intercut it with shots of a bowl of borscht, a dead woman in a coffin, and a girl playing with a toy bear. In each case, the audience raved about the power of Mozhukin’s acting. He was seen as pensive in the first, sorrowful in the second, and smiling in the third. Through such experiments, Kuleshov slowly formulated the concept that became known as the Kuleshov effect. Kuleshov effect Kuleshov argued that a film shot has two values: its own photographic image of reality and what it acquires when spliced next to another shot. To Kuleshov, editing, or “montage,” was the key to cinema, because it subordinated time and space and could also be used symbolically on a nonliteral level.

Kuleshov gathered into his workshop some of the Soviet cinema’s brightest filmmakers: Sergei Eisenstein, Boris Barnet, Mikhail Kalatzov, and Yakov Protazanov. The brilliant Eisenstein, in particular, although he studied only briefly with Kuleshov (and also worked briefly with Vertov), launched a remarkable film career based on montage. Kuleshov’s special disciple, however, and the one most associated with and influenced by his work, was Vsevolod Illarionovich Pudovkin, who collaborated with his teacher on a number of experimental film projects. Pudovkin was six years older than his professor and had originally studied to be a chemist. His primary goal was to become an actor, but Kuleshov expected his students to learn all aspects of cinema. Pudovkin was an eager pupil and quickly assimilated Kuleshov’s important concepts. He was particularly fascinated by the way a film performance could be manipulated via skillful editing.

Pudovkin’s scientific training and his dramatic visual sense prompted him to become a director. He gained experience working on Kuleshov’s films before embarking on his own. Pudovkin created three silent masterpieces of the 1920’s, Mother (1926), The End of St. Petersburg (1927), and The Heir to Ghengis Khan (1928). His appeal in all three was directly to the audience’s emotions, and he kept his story lines simple and powerful, in contrast to his fellow filmmaker Eisenstein, whose work seemed detached and intellectual. Kuleshov remained proud of both his pupils and found much to admire in their creative work.


In 1926, Kuleshov abandoned his workshop to become involved with a project that became his most important film, By the Law. By the Law (film) The film was adapted from a short story by Jack London titled “The Unexpected” and was made on one of the smallest budgets in Soviet cinema history. It was set in a one-room cabin in a desolate part of the Yukon. The story line concerns justice and how two people must try, condemn, and execute a third person who murdered their friends. By the Law is economical and polished in style; artistically, it implies social criticism. Kuleshov cleverly used montage to create a remarkable film that achieved international success when released in December of 1926.

The same year, Pudovkin was emerging as a self-confident artist and began the first of his three revolutionary films, Mother, Mother (film) based on a Maxim Gorky novel that takes place during the 1905 revolution. The story is about a family consisting of a poor peasant woman, her husband, a brutal drunkard, and the couple’s son. Father and son come to blows over differing political views, and the father is killed. The mother naïvely betrays her son to the authorities, and he is sentenced in a rigged trial. The mother helps him to escape jail, and later the two unite and both are killed at a workers’ demonstration held on May Day. Pudovkin edited the film brilliantly, creating breathtaking montage effects; the film always stays in touch with the human drama unfolding underneath the great moments of history.

Pudovkin also found time in 1926 to write two books on filmmaking that helped to clarify the Kuleshov-Pudovkin concept of montage. He restated Kuleshov’s basic premise that films are not “shot” but are artistically “built” from separate strips. Both artists discovered that individual film clips become part of a larger form with intrinsic structural unity and effectiveness. Pudovkin stated that the key process was actually one of a cognitive “linkage” of frames. In his films, he intercut images in exciting new ways, arranging them on a metaphysical as well as narrative level, clearly showing his indebtedness to Kuleshov. Pudovkin stressed the story, keeping it simple and clear; his attitude was personal and emotional. He used fluid narrative editing and used shock montage effects sparingly. His handling of actors was brilliant, and his films are memorable for their performances. He excelled in using montage to contrast the horrible brutality of wars with the idealism that fuels them.

By 1927, both Kuleshov and Pudovkin, through their experiments, writings, and films employing the principle of montage, had made a decided impact on Soviet and world cinema. Their editorial concepts opened up the artistic possibilities of film. Filmmakers could now manipulate what the audience experienced, enabling them to elicit certain emotions, associations, and thoughts. Kuleshov and Pudovkin not only demonstrated theoretically their concepts of montage but also created masterpieces of early Soviet cinema.

In 1927, Pudovkin made the film that won him an international reputation, The End of St. Petersburg, End of St. Petersburg, The (film)[End of Saint Petersburg] which had the distinction of being the first Soviet film to play in New York City at Broadway’s largest theater, the Roxy. Through the eyes of a peasant, the film shows the historic events that rocked Russia from 1912 to 1917, when it was transformed from czarist to Soviet rule. Pudovkin graphically showed how his hero radically changes from a bumbling youth to a mature man aware of his country’s suffering. The director intercut the hysteria of the czarist stock market exchange with the hysteria found on the battlefield. When the peasant enters Leningrad, he is viewed from above the building, as though he is an ant, but by picture’s end, the camera is on the ground looking up at him. One breathtaking sequence shows a midlevel bureaucrat in an elevator with a tycoon promising a great promotion. As the elevator rises, the light changes, and the toady’s smile grows as he rises to the top; the scene stands as a brilliant testament to the montage theories of Kuleshov and Pudovkin.

By the end of 1927, the first decade of the Soviet Union was over. There was much to celebrate in the film industry. Soviet filmmakers, inspired by Kuleshov, were producing exciting and celebrated films. Montage was being employed in new and innovative ways. Important theoretical developments in the cinema had been established and encouraged because they played an important role in promoting the revolution. The aim was to build a glorious Communist future. Pudovkin wrote that when “the old and familiar artistic methods crumbled and collapsed. . . . Lev Kuleshov forced us to acquire visual taste and taught us the ABC of montage.”

The honeymoon of state and art would not last. Joseph Stalin had assumed complete power after Lenin’s death, and by the end of 1927, he was moving to consolidate his hold over the Communist Party. Stalin grew increasingly suspicious of criticism, particularly from the cinema, which was forced to eschew artistic concerns and was pressured into creating pictures for the working classes. It is no wonder, then, that neither Kuleshov nor Pudovkin ever again achieved his original level of critical success and even, along with Eisenstein, fell into political disfavor. During the mid-1920’s, however, these filmmakers created a vital cinematic language that invigorated the screen and made the Soviet cinema the envy of the world. Motion pictures;editing Montage, motion pictures Filmmaking techniques Soviet Union;motion pictures

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Birkos, Alexander S. Soviet Cinema: Directors and Films. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1976. Divided into two comprehensive sections focusing on Soviet cinema from 1918 to 1975. The first part examines the creative lives of the important directors; the second concerns the important films released during the period. Encyclopedic approach, with a good short introduction to the subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dickinson, Thorold, and Catherine De La Roche. Soviet Cinema. New York: Arno Press, 1972. Brief volume pairs two essays by different critics, one on silent film and the other on film with sound. Illustrated with many photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feldman, Seth R. Evolution of Style in the Early Work of Dziga Vertov. New York: Arno Press, 1975. Dissertation on Vertov’s pioneering work and his important place in Soviet cinema. Examines political, historic, and aesthetic concerns as they relate to Vertov’s theories.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kenez, Peter. Cinema and Soviet Society: From the Revolution to the Death of Stalin. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001. History of Soviet film includes discussion of changes in cinematic content and style from before the revolution and the constraints of Socialist Realism. Features illustrations, glossary, filmography, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kuleshov, Lev. Kuleshov on Film: Writings by Lev Kuleshov. Edited and translated by Ronald Levaco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974. Kuleshov’s essays reveal him to be cinema’s first aesthetic theorist. Levaco, through his essay selection, translation, and editing of Kuleshov’s writings, transforms Kuleshov from a shadowy figure to a director with a unique place in Soviet cinema.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leyda, Jay. Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film. 3d ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983. Classic study of Russian/Soviet cinema gives a marvelous overview, including the screening of films in 1896 through the revolution, the great achievements in the 1920’s, the repressive Stalinist era, and the resurgence following Stalin’s death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pudovkin, V. I. Film Technique and Film Acting. Translated by Ivor Montagu. London: Vision Press, 1954. Pudovkin’s two studies on cinema are as important as any of his films and are considered classics by both filmmakers and scholars. He openly acknowledges Kuleshov as his mentor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schnitzer, Luda, Jean Schnitzer, and Marcel Martin, eds. Cinema in Revolution: The Heroic Era of the Soviet Film. 1973. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1987. Excellent collection of twelve essays by the leading Soviet filmmakers, including Kuleshov, Vertov, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Alexander Dovzhenko.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Richard. Film Propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. Rev. ed. New York: I. B. Tauris, 1998. Demonstrates the significance of propaganda in twentieth century politics and the controlled way cinema has been used. Offers only a limited look at Soviet film achievement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vertov, Dziga. Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov. Edited by Annette Michelson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Valuable collection of Vertov’s work, gathered from his articles, public addresses, notebooks, diaries, creative projects, and proposals. Good introductory section includes Vertov’s filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vorontsov, Iu, and Igor Rachuk. The Phenomenon of the Soviet Cinema. Translated by Doris Bradbury. Moscow: Progress, 1980. Politically correct Soviet interpretation of cinema from its origins through the 1970’s. Includes chapters on Soviet audiences, films shown abroad, and a good filmography.

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Categories: History