The Art of Montage: Battleship Potemkin
Montage — Many films probably come to mind when thinking of that word. Montage is a popular artistic choice in movies and television. It enables the filmmaker to emote a feeling while using minimal to no dialogue. For those who may not know what a montage is, it is a series of shots edited together to drive a point, advance the story in a way dialogue couldn’t, and make an audience feel something. Its best uses are when it abbreviates time by taking weeks, months, or years worth of story and condensing it into a few minute or seconds. The audience then uses gestalt to logically piece together the unseen events that take place during over that period of time. (For example, if we see a young woman in a nice apartment, then see her with a black eye in a disheveled apartment, we can infer that she was abused by someone over a period of time.)
Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein is often credited as the godfather of montage. He believed that montage was “The essence of cinema,” and that editing went beyond exposition. Eisenstein believed that a “collision” of independent shots could manipulate audience emotions through a “collage,” or montage, of images. Even in the 1910s and ’20s, he realized he could use editing, as primitive as it was at the time, to make audiences feel a certain way using minimal dialogue cards (this was during the silent era).
The film often credited as opening filmmakers’ eyes to montage is the 1925 Russian propaganda film Battleship Potemkin, directed by Eisenstein. The famous Odessa Step sequence was unlike anything seen in cinema at the time. In the scene, a group of soldiers march down an outdoor flight of stairs while villagers attempt to flee the army by going up the stairs. As they run up the stairs, the soldiers begin opening fire on the villagers. As those that are unhurt attempt to escape, another group of soldiers meets them at the bottom of the steps and opens fire.
What was so groundbreaking about this sequence was the editing and filming techniques. For the time, the blocking is very elaborate. The usually type of filmmaking in the ’20s was to set up a camera in the center of where the “fourth wall” would be. The camera would almost always be static as the actors would act out the scene. It was very much like watching a play from the perspective of the audience in attendance. The Odessa Steps sequence, however, took the camera outdoors and set it up in what many thought were odd and daring positions. The beautiful shot look straight on the side of the soldiers feet as they marched down the steps in unison was the kind of artistic touch not scene in filmmaking in those days. Most notably, there were dolly shots going down the steps. Though they don’t look as nice as modern dolly shots, just the thought of pulling this off is impressive knowing that they didn’t have anything close to resembling steadicam technology back then.
Montage is a series of shots edited together to drive a point, advance the story in a way dialogue couldn’t, and make an audience feel something.
The other groundbreaking element of the scene is the editing. At the time, the common way to edit a scene was wide shot, close-up, wide shot, close-up. And by close-up, I mean what we would nowadays call a medium shot. Very rarely was the camera placed in direct vicinity of the actor’s face. The editing in the Odessa Steps sequence, however, is closer to modern editing: wide, close-up, close-up, medium, close-up, etc. (that’s just an example). Eisenstein most likely sat with the editor as he manually spliced film together, watched the different shots with him, and telling him what to cut to next.
This montage uses quick cuts to give the audience a sense of urgency and dread. By cutting to shots of people fleeing down the stairs, the audience feels the urgency they feel, while at the same time feeling concerned for their safety. This concern is only heightened by cutting to the stunning shots of the feet of the soldiers walking down the stairs. The sense of intensity and concern hits an all-time high as we see the baby carriage falling down the stairs with the baby inside. By cutting to shots of shocked onlookers, we as well get a feeling of shock and horror after observing the preceding events.
This sequence was so influential, that all filmmakers globally, not just in Russia, stood up, took notice, and began making changes to how they blocked and edited their films. It was one of the earliest examples of a film reaching beyond the borders of its country of origin. Eisenstein changed filmmaking forever. Movies like The Godfather, Requiem for a Dream, and The Untouchables (which all but copied the Odessa Steps sequence shot for shot) are indebted to Eisenstein and the Odessa Steps. For nearly a century, montage has been a crucial form of storytelling. Countless films have used montage to move the story along in a short, but powerful fashion. These films and filmmakers owe everything they know about montage to Sergei Eisenstein and the Odessa Steps sequence, arguably the most important montage in cinema history.
Matt is a 23-year-old producer, director, and writer from DFW, Texas, who holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Film, TV, and Digital Media from Texas Christian University and is now an apprentice at the Center for Creative Media. His ultimate goal is to bring glory to God as a showrunner on TV. He is fueled by laughter, music, and donuts. Lots and lots of donuts.