The Film 100: Sergei Eisenstein, no. 16


Born: January 23, 1898, Riga, Latvia
Died: February 11, 1948, Moscow, Russia

Any two pieces of film stuck together inevitably combine to create a new concept.
—Sergei Eisenstein

Arguably, the most powerful ten minutes in movie history belong to Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. His flashing images of a massacre in the landmark film Battleship Potemkin (1925) shocked the film world and ushered in a remarkable and controversial style of editing. It was no happy accident that Potemkin contains such raw emotional energy; Eisenstein was a thoughtful director who had been preparing to make the film his greatest illustration of the art of “montage” editing. Montage showed filmmakers a new way to glean meaning from their footage, to weave messages into their stories. Though Eisenstein would manage to complete just seven films, all of which demonstrate the potential of montage, the concept would catch on quickly and take hold in films around the world.

Sergei Eisenstein was first and foremost a student of movies. An intense fascination with the editing style of D.W. Griffith led him to the production of his own short films, including a parody of newsreels in Glumov’s Diary (1923). The young director spent long hours at the editing table, cutting miles of footage into different combinations to achieve new effects. Many of his creations were shown to friends who seemed to humor his particular bent, but when he edited the avant-garde film Strike (1924), he sparked the public’s imagination with the first display of a new cinematic grammar. The film had scenes in which a series of conflicting shots abbreviated time spans and overlapped the meaning of images. Strike’s best example of the new “montage” editing style was a scene in which rioting factory workers are gunned down; intercutting between the massacre and shots of cattle being butchered, Eisenstein was able to draw a parallel with images that borrowed an emotional response from one shot and applied it to another. This power of suggestion is the essence of montage.

The Film 100
1. W.K. Laurie Dickson
2  Edwin S. Porter
3. Charlie Chaplin
4. Mary Pickford
5. Orson Welles
6. Alfred Hitchcock
7. Walt Disney
8. D.W. Griffith
9. Will Hays
10 Thomas Edison
11. John Wayne
12. J.R. Bray
13. Billy Bitzer
14. Jesse Lasky
15. George Eastman
16. Sergei Eisenstein
17. André Bazin
18. Irving Thalberg
19. Thomas Ince
20. Marlon Brando
21. Louis B. Mayer
22. Greta Garbo
23. Robert Flaherty
24. Lon Chaney
25. Anita Loos
26. George Méliès
27. Adolph Zukor
28. John Gilbert
29. Max Fleischer
30. John Ford
31. William Fox
32. George Lucas
33. Linwood Gale Dunn
34. Eadweard Muybridge
35. Katharine Hepburn
36. Winsor McCay
37. Stanley Kubrick
38. Buster Keaton
39. James Agee
40. Fritz Lang
41. Marcus Loew
42. Cedric Gibbons
43. James Cagney
44. Ben Hecht
45. Ingmar Bergman
46. Humphrey Bogart
47. Leon Schlesinger
48. Louella Parsons
49. Roger Corman
50. Edith Head
51. Bernard Herrmann
52. Gary Cooper
53. Mike Todd
54. Ernst Lubitsch
55. Sidney Poitier
56. Saul Bass
57. Billy Wilder
58. Bette Davis
59. Erich von Stroheim
60. Max Factor
61. Auguste and Louis Lumière
62. Woody Allen
63. Clark Gable
64. David O. Selznick
65. Gregg Toland
66. Lillian Gish
67. William Cameron Menzies
68. Lucille Ball
69. Samuel Rothafel
70. Akira Kurosawa
71. Marilyn Monroe
72. Vittorio De Sica
73. Natalie Kalmus
74. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert
75. Willis O’Brien
76. Shirley Temple
77. Yakima Canutt
78. Sam Peckinpah
79. Jackie Coogan
80. Federico Fellini
81. Leni Riefenstahl
82. Steven Spielberg
83. Sam Warner
84. Jean-Luc Godard
85. Robert De Niro
86. Fred Astaire
87. Francis Ford Coppola
88. Ted Turner
89. Clint Eastwood
90. Dalton Trumbo
91. Dennis Hopper
92. Richard Hollingshead
93. Melvin Van Peebles
94. John Chambers
95. Mack Sennett
96. Martin Scorsese
97. Karl Struss
98. Busby Berkeley
99. John Hubley
100. John Cassavetes

The enormously influential Battleship Potemkin (1925) was only Eisenstein’s second film, but it became the perfect demonstration of the editing style—a montage masterpiece. Potemkin remains to this day the highest achievement of its kind. The story is about Russian sailors who refuse to accept maggot-infested provisions while docked in the city of Odessa. Enlisting the support of the townspeople, they rise up against czarist troops and face a violent end in the film’s climactic scene. Eisenstein’s script was based on an actual account of the 1905 mutiny that incited the Russian Revolution. Splicing close-ups of suffering faces with the boots of marching soldiers in the legendary “Odessa steps” sequence, Eisenstein used a rapid-fire technique of fast cutting between babies, mothers, and guns in scenes so shocking that audiences believed they were watching newsreel footage of a brutal wartime uprising. The film featured no memorable characters, and the quick succession of human faces served to symbolize the power of the masses rather than the thoughts of an individual. For example, the devastating effects of the revolution are insinuated by shots of anonymous people: a grieving mother embracing a dead child, an elderly man running for shelter, and, most famous, the seemingly purposeful stumbling of an untethered baby buggy through a barrage of vicious infantrymen. The ten-minute montage sequence manages to say more about the senselessness of aggression than any two hours of dialogue from a script ever could.

Battleship Potemkin pushed cinema to a new standard. It is surpassed in its editing influence only by The Birth of a Nation, and the exceptional crosscutting is one of the true original additions to the art of film. Eisenstein basked in the worldwide reaction, calling himself a premiere illusionist. The film displayed its political ideology so convincingly that it was banned in several countries. However, Eisenstein became the legendary filmmaker of his country, overshadowing the accomplishments of such other Russian talents as Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Alexander Dovzhenko.


The montage style became the predominant technique in many films, and it is used in thousands of contemporary films to execute most of the transitional devices that audiences now take for granted. The most commonly seen example of montage is a collage of images that conveys the passing of time or events: for example, the stereotypical shot of printing presses running with superimposed newspapers falling on top of one another, each showing a new headline. Another example, by now a visual cliché, is the use of overlapping shots of the same car in front of different landmark tourist locations to mean the character is traveling around the country; the editing style compresses the entire trip into just seconds of film time. These concepts are so ingrained in the visual language of film that most viewers never stop to question their long-established purpose.

However, there is a more sophisticated execution of the montage editing style, often referred to as intellectual montage, and this is the style most closely associated with Eisenstein’s work. Intellectual montage juxtaposes several images through the use of shock cuts or dissolves, to pull from the scene a deeper meaning. Symbolism and visual metaphors are often the result, but the technique is also a way to create penetrating thematic points that would be awkward or difficult to portray otherwise. Sometimes these sequences can take on a slow, majestic feeling; the opening montage sequence of Citizen Kane superimposes iron gates and NO TRESPASSING signs over the castle of Xanadu as a metaphor for the reclusive millionaire living inside. Other times the suggestive power of montage is best served by shock cuts: the famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho brings together startling clips from several vantage points to simulate the surprise and confusion of a brutal attack. Eisenstein’s influence can also be seen in the sacrificial ritual at the conclusion of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, in the space dogfights in George Lucas’s Star Wars, and in the peyote-induced visionquest of Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s The Doors.

Eisenstein’s direction became internationally renowned. The overwhelming curiosity over montage forced him to articulate his filmmaking aesthetic to the world, and he became known as the greatest thinker among film theorists. The Stalin regime, growing weary of the attention Eisenstein received, took out their disfavor on his subsequent films. October (1928), originally commissioned for the anniversary of the 1917 revolution, was plagued with party politics, and Eisenstein was ordered to change his style of editing.

When the sound era approached, Russian filmmakers feared they would be left behind and urged their government to let them explore sound technologies. Eisenstein was sent to Europe in 1929 to investigate recording techniques for sound films and was welcomed as a hero by the film community. He met his own hero, Abel Gance, scientist Albert Einstein, and author Gertrude Stein. From Europe he continued on to Hollywood, where he formed an immediate friendship with Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, and his mentor, D.W. Griffith.

Inspired by the documentaries of Robert Flaherty, Eisenstein detoured to South America in 1930 before returning to Russia. He filmed Que Viva Mexico and sent the footage ahead to Moscow for editing, where it mysteriously disappeared; it was never seen again. After years of frustration over Russia’s interference with his work, Eisenstein suffered a nervous breakdown in 1932. The Communist government continually refused to allow the production of his ideas until 1941, when Eisenstein was commissioned to make Ivan the Terrible, based on the sixteenth-century historical figure. He proposed a three-part epic that eventually became mired in problems and hastened the end of his career as a director. In later years, he worked as a professor in the Moscow film school. His selected essays dissecting the different applications of montage in film direction, as well as his books The Film Sense and Film Form, were published in the sixties and widely read. He died just days after his fiftieth birthday.

The four cornerstones of basic film techniques were laid by Eisenstein, Porter, Welles, and Griffith. Together, these four men discovered the essential elements of composing, shooting, and editing and discovered important ways of combining images to inject powerful new meanings into their stories.

To read all the republished articles from ‘The Film 100,’ go to Reintroducing the Film 100 here on Keyframe.

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