What is Soviet Montage?

As I’ve written in this article, the montage technique has become an important element of modern film. In fact, here are a few Netflix hits that have used the montage technique.

🎬 Stranger Things:

🎬 Queen’s Gambit:

The montage technique is used so often now. As a viewer, you don’t even notice it. You likely expect a montage or two in every film you watch.

Origins of the Montage technique

Montage is a French word for editing. In film, it entails putting together a series of separate pictures or films to convey a passage of time, among other functions. 

The Soviet Montage was popularized during the early 20th century, and it’s a technique that revolutionized film editing as it is today. It originated from Soviet Russia and is the brainchild of legendary director Lev Kulshov.

Soviet montage is based on Lev Kulshov’s approach to cinema. Kulshov advocated for portraying ideas beyond the limitation of a single frame. He argued that sometimes it took a compilation of different frames to bring out a concept or emotion. 

He went further to prove this concept by conducting an experiment on an audience. With a singular facial expression across different scenarios, Kulshov was able to evoke different feelings in viewers. 

He laid the groundwork for the montage as we know it today, influencing generations of film since then.

Celebrated titles such as The Man with a Movie Camera and Battle Potemkin and many more were influenced by the Soviet Montage.

These movies employ visceral images and visual metaphors to convey meaning and subtext.

Kulshov’s theory has inspired acclaimed filmmakers like Dsiga Werov, and Sergei Einstein, the minds behind these groundbreaking movies. Alfred Hitchcock has even attested to borrowing a leaf or two from him in that department. 

Early montage techniques came up with new ways to conveniently depict space and time on film. Some of these methods are still in use to date. 

Here are 3 notable uses of montage in modern cinema: 

Rushmore montage by Wes Anderson

Known for his meticulous detailing and carefully-thought-out set designs, Wes Anderson is reputable for his painstaking organization. Every element is placed in perfect symmetry and at right angles.

Constrained and precise, Director Anderson gives much thought to his angles and color palettes. He is also famous for his incredible choice of song that sets the mood perfectly for an idea he’d like to pass. 

We can see these fingerprints all over the 1998 comedy-drama Rushmore, where he implores the montage technique to great effect. In particular, his revenge montage is used to hilariously show how two characters continually antagonize each other with a series of vengeful acts.

The revenge montage is a culmination of Max and Herman vying for the affections of the same girl. It begins with Max guiding bees into Mr. Blume’s suite via a pipe. Upon much discomfort and eventually seeing the contraption, Herman is instantly aware of who’s behind it. 

He smiles and nods to a frown as if to say “two can play at that game.” 

Herman pauses for a brief moment as the camera zooms in, and this kickstarts the sequence of montage events. The song “A Quick One, While He’s Away” beats into life as the scene transitions into the montage.

Herman counters the bee incident by running over Max’s ten-speed bicycle. The next scene entails Max sliding under Mr. Blume’s car to cut his brakes. Having had enough of the back and forth, Herman reports the matter to the police. The montage ends with Max’s arrest. 

Wes Anderson uses the montage technique in this case to hilariously bring out the child-like series of vengeful acts between the two characters. The blitz of revenge under the cover of the classic song makes this scene unforgettable. 

Requiem for a dream montage (Aronofsky)

This 2000 psychological drama takes the audience on a story about four drug addicts. It is based on the similarly titled book Requiem for a Dream.

The powerful and emotional movie tackles the modern-day issue of drug addiction and how it affects the lives of those involved. 

Director Aronofsky dissects the physical toll of the habit, as well as the emotional price that addicts have to pay. It takes the audience into their world of desperation and delusion. Characters sink deeper into their fantasies as reality fades in the background, and over time their addiction leads to catastrophe.

This theme is powerfully delivered via montage. The collection of imagery, dialogue, and character behaviors bring out the cruel results of drug abuse. Each time a character starts to use, a montage of sequential close-up shots summarizes the happenings. 

We see how they light up and the entire process is summed up into back-to-back frames of dilating pupils, sniffed drugs, body cells flowing, and more.

In Requiem for a Dream, montages are used in abundance. Coupled with strategic music, Aronofsky puts the viewers in the drug addicts’ shoes. It shows the sensation of time from their altered perspective, and how everything feels around them in this state. The film is further broken down into winter, fall and summer. 

The change of seasons is parallel to the actions of the characters. This technique of montage is called intellectual montage.

Baptism in Godfather 

The Godfather is one of the most iconic films of the 20th century. One incident that has had fans talking over the years is the infamous Baptism scene. Michael is in church attending the baptism of his nephew.

As the priest talks over the proceedings, asking Michael a set of procedural questions, violence unfolds in the scenes between his responses. 

In the first scene, a henchman blasts two guys with a shotgun as they approach a door. Next, a man is shot in the head, through his glasses, on a massage table. Another is shot through a revolving door, a couple is assassinated in bed, and a police officer kills three men in the streets. As the priest officiates the final words of the ceremony, the montage goes over the trail of bodies, ending with Michael’s contemplative thinking.

This montage passed a powerful subtext and it was arguably the most important across the trilogy. Michael was destined for a different life. He was to get an education and forge a path outside of the “family business.” 

Against his father’s wishes, he even signed up for the army. A series of unfortunate events however draws him back to his roots.  

His father’s assault and the murder of his brother, fuel his return. He comes back to not only exact vengeance but also take up the Corleone family crown.

He has other rival heads murdered, including his brother-in-law, thereby saving his sister from a poor marriage in the process.  The baptism scene sees him step into the role of the Godfather for his nephew.

Movies are a visual medium

As a filmmaker and video producer, I view montages as important elements to a film. A good montage is the purest form of cinema. It tells a story (or plot point) purely on moving images.

As I’ve written in this article about exposition, you need subtext to deliver plot points and/or character development. Let the viewer decide and figure out on their own based on the images shown on the screen.

This keeps the audience engaged and wondering what will happen next.

So when you’re writing your script or deciding on what to shoot, remember that video is a visual medium. It’s best to use a good montage rather than use a talking head to drop exposition on the audience.

And when using a video montage, look at how other filmmakers have adopted elements of the Soviet montage in their own films.

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