Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov are among the most identifiable names in early Soviet film. Their contributions to film, in the areas of montage and documentary film respectively, have helped to structure film, as we know it today. However, apart from their theoretical contributions to the field, both directors played an imperative role in Soviet film during the 1920s and 1930s. This paper examines historical revisionism within their film, how their theories of montage influenced the revisionism, and how they were persistent in the use montage throughout their careers as filmmakers to assert themselves as artists.
Both Eisenstein and Vertov used montage in their films to generate revisionist histories of the Soviet Union. Though both were forced to acclimate due to changes in Soviet politics and society, their development of historical revisionism through montage sustained through the 1920s and 1930s. Furthermore, the repressive regimes that compelled them to, at least publicly, amend their artistic aesthetics, did not succeed in precluding them from expressing themselves as artists. Thus, later in their careers, both Eisenstein and Vertov continued to express themselves by introducing montage into their films, even when under pressure from Soviet censors to submit to socialist realism. Here, the term “historical revisionism,” denotes shots, scenes, or moments of montage within the film that depicted distorted or false versions of history. The history that is fashioned may be explicit or implicit. Moreover, the distortions may be either premeditated or accidental.
Eisenstein and Vertov transformed over the course of their careers, both in their theories and in their films. While the modification can be partially accredited to the natural evolution and refining of their theories over time, the Cultural Revolution (1928-1931) played a central role in the way both directors handled filmmaking. The Revolution in Russia in 1917 ignited an era of ambiguity in which the avant-garde of the revolution wanted answers about how to apply socialist ideas in society. The early years of the Soviet Union were supplemented by sweeping experimentation in art and propaganda, especially in the area of film. Unlike socialist realism, which became the endorsed artistic aesthetic of the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, the years after the revolution were branded by discussion and indecision about the true meaning of socialist art.1
Sergei Eisenstein supposed the use of montage was a way to help the masses understand art. Montage in film is simply the editing and juxtaposition of unconnected theatrical images. The practice of montage created meaning with the comparison of two images that would not exist if seen independently. Eisenstein’s theory of montage branches from the idea that film is a unique art form, and not simply an expansion of theater. Combined with political impacts, Eisenstein’s montage produced several films, which encompassed revisionist history. Eisenstein’s early films Strike (1925), The Battleship Potemkin (1926), and October (1928) each exemplify this trend. Montage as a proxy of historical revisionism was predominantly evident in Eisenstein’s film depiction of the Russian revolution, October.
October stands as one of Eisenstein’s utmost success in montage. Nearly every scene holds abundant examples of montage, and thus it is an appropriate case study for understanding how Eisenstein put his theory of montage into practice. One example is particularly relevant. The symbol of the statue of Tsar Alexander III, which is originally torn down, but later rebuilt through the use of montage, provides a clear example and demands analysis.2
Eisenstein’s use of montage in the scenes encompassing the statue of Alexander III depicts two influential revolutionary ideals. First, the proletariat is responsible for tearing down the statue of Alexander III. Thus, the revolutionary body of the working class itself is responsible for the first step towards socialism rather than being led by a radical leader. Secondly, the Provisional Government, appears counter-revolutionary and analogous to the tsar. According to Eisenstein, the Provisional Government’s likeness to the autocracy is purely the foreseeable result of an inadequate revolution. Thus, montage is used to communicate political ideology, but also forms the content of the film. Eisenstein’s use of montage lets the statue become more than a guileless symbol illustrative of the tsarist rule, but rather as a means of articulating the need for complete revolution. Without the use of montage, the statue’s connotation would have been far more limited, and thus far less protuberant within the film. In this case, Eisenstein’s use of montage impacts the film’s observable content as well as its implication in a way that political ideology alone would not have.
Dziga Vertov, on the other hand, spoke with disdain towards humanity’s inadequacies. His concept for film relied on the supposition that the machine, the movie camera, was superior to the human eye. Vertov fluctuated from Eisenstein in that he was weary of the theater as the foundation for film. In fact, Vertov sought to dissociate film from theater as an art form. Similar to Eisenstein, however, Vertov used montage as a cinematographic method of contrasting images on screen. Vertov was interested in exposing “truth,” which could only be seen through the objective lens of the camera. Vertov then set himself to the duty of offering the truth to his audience through montage. Vertov has most often been studied in the context of documentary film. However, his films are also covertly historical, and, thus, can be watched as historical films. Vertov’s experimental film The Man with a Movie Camera (1929) demonstrated his use of documentary footage edited exercising the ideologies of montage together with documentary film’s intrinsic historical properties.
The Man with a Movie Camera is a visual veneration of Soviet life. Vertov sought to communicate communist ideals by showing images of life in Soviet society, using the principles of montage to create meaning. In the film, Vertov uses montage to link documentary footage to produce socialist meaning comparable to Eisenstein’s use of montage in October. The start of the film, which features Vertov’s city “waking up,” he presents some images of industrial machinery in montage with the first people walking in the city streets. Vertov links his complex city with an assortment of inactive industrial machinery. This preliminary use of montage shows that Vertov associates machinery with an unembellished “waking up” of society. Vertov’s emphasis on machinery at the onset of The Man with a Movie Camera is symptomatic of a tendency that is seen throughout the film; the prominence of machinery in Soviet life, and its collaboration with humanity. The scene ultimately cuts to a woman who has just woken up and washed, and is blinking hurriedly. She is shown in montage first with a swiftly opening and closing set of blinds, and then eventually with the opening and closing of the lens on a movie camera. This revives the metaphor, this time correlating the waking up with the movie camera itself.
Through montage, Vertov constructs meaning that signifies that socialism is waking the people from a figurative sleep. Vertov, of course, is not merely making a testimonial about the waking up of a socialist society, but rather a greater statement about the new era in history that socialism represents. Though the notions of a rousing of society, the awakening of the woman, and the progression of humanity through work and industrialization are all principles held by the Communists within the Soviet Union, they are not depicted in an obvious manner that would have been decipherable to the bulk of moviegoers. Vertov, in much the same way as Eisenstein, incorporates complex film theory in a film that was, supposedly, designed to transfer ideas to the masses, but it did not explicitly work.
Now, here is where both of these filmmakers’ practices begin to shift. The matter of the historical epic in the precept of Soviet film is an interesting one. In spite of strong attention of the Soviet government on the future of political, social, and cultural progress that communism would bring, popular Soviet filmmakers were stimulated to make films portraying distinctly historical subject matter. By the late 1930s the historical epic caught the notice of the Soviet Union’s great filmmakers, in particular that of Sergei Eisenstein.
Of particular note was Eisenstein’s series of films portraying medieval, and early modern Russian history. His two films Alexander Nevsky (1938), and Ivan the Terrible (1944 and 1959), capture relatively distant Russian history and place Russia’s imperial past in an outdated communist context. Both films mark a notable change in Eisenstein’s form and content, and transition into a phase of films, which can be defined as the “historical epic” – the genre of film that takes place in the detached past and is historically untied from the Russian Revolution. This differentiates Eisenstein’s later films from his earlier work illustrating the Russian Revolution such as Strike, October, and Battleship Potemkin, which outlined Eisenstein’s earlier place within the canon of Soviet film.
The swing in Eisenstein’s film is equivalent to the shift in Soviet philosophy during the 1930s. Simply put, the party moved towards more old-fashioned means of assembling the country for war. The Stalinist party hierarchy used Russian national heroes, myths and imagery to promote the dominant Marxist-Leninist line.3 For instance, softening his “terrible” character, and highlighting his role as a national builder and strong leader, revised the history of Ivan the Terrible. The veneration of Ivan IV, then, was synonymous to an official rationalization for Stalin’s merging of power and hard line treatment of those whom he deliberated to be counter-revolutionary.
Since Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Nevsky were important, near-mythological figures in Russia, the revision of their historical importance allowed the Soviet government to validate its actions through an appeal to the influence of individuals with whom the populace could identify or were very familiar. Both Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible were filmed during the era in which the artistic theory known as socialist realism, the artistic aesthetic officially supported by the Soviet government, was adopted as the conclusive socialist art form.
Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible represent a marked change from the way Eisenstein structured his early films. Despite his insistence that his montage theories were attuned with the all-embracing framework of socialist realism, it is clear that he had to make changes to make his newer films suitable to the Soviet censors. His first historical epic, Alexander Nevsky, was his most outstanding aberration from montage to date, and expressed a new stage in Eisenstein’s film directing career. Alexander Nevsky was released in 1938 with the threat of Hitler and the Nazi’s looming to the west, and the rule of Stalin resolutely founded. The weight of the historical moment is not lost on the film, which was in part a warning and call to action to the Soviet people, as well as a pronouncement of strong consolidated leadership. Set in the thirteenth century, the film depicts Russia in a time of crisis, with the threat of the Mongols from the south and east, and the Germans from the west. The film follows Nevsky as he struggles against the German invasion, and eventually defeats them in the climactic battle on the ice. While the film is based on actual historical events, Eisenstein dramatizes and revises events to fit the ideals of Stalinism is the late 1930s, in the mode of socialist realism. The characters often make outmoded interjections about socialism, nationalism, and a unified Russia. In contrast to Eisenstein’s earlier films, which often glorified communal heroes, Alexander Nevsky stresses individual characters, the most imperative of which is Nevsky himself. The film, then, accentuates a strong willed Russian people who need an equally strong leader to defeat a rival with far greater numbers.
The historical epic founded a chief change in Sergei Eisenstein’s filmmaking career and is indicative of the altering landscape of film in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s rise to power. In the ambiance that had become progressively unsympathetic to the radicalism, which had supplemented the revolution, Eisenstein was forced to adapt to the new standards of Stalinism and socialist realism. Eisenstein endeavored to reunite his theory of montage with socialist realism and it would play an important, though evidently more negligible, role than in his previous films. The historical epic became the means through which Eisenstein delivered the new message for several reasons, and using montage to advocate the ideals of Stalinism permitted him to express himself artistically, even while conforming. First, the mythology and history behind historical figures, especially Alexander Nevsky and Ivan IV, was moderately well known among Russian society in a way that made the subject matter immediately accessible when embodied in a realist manner. Second, the historical figures correspond with the present-day Stalinist superlative that a great individual leader was essential to a successful society. The stories of Nevsky and Ivan were, in other words, purely controlled to imitate Stalin’s brand of socialism.
Like Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov’s films show a noticeable change following the Cultural Revolution. Unquestionably, the transformed political climate and Socialist Realism inclined Vertov in ways similar to Eisenstein. While Vertov stayed dedicated to creating documentary film, changes in content, as well as delicate changes in the exhibition of montage propose that not even Vertov’s theory of film during the early Soviet era were exempt from suppressive authority in the 1930s.
Vertov endured in his belief that documentary film was grander than “acted” film. Akin to The Man with a Movie Camera, his film Three Songs of Lenin (1934) set out to worship the Soviet lifestyle through the camera’s superior illustration of reality. However, Vertov’s topic altered meaningfully from his earlier work. Three Songs of Lenin undoubtedly moves away from the portrayal of reality in The Man with a Movie Camera, which focused on a more shared view of socialism in the Soviet Union, the magnificence of modern technology, and the Soviet people as a whole. In its place, Three Songs of Lenin changes the concentration from the broad to the specific, and in many cases from the masses to the leader. The trend is not unlike Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, which overvalued strong leadership and centralized power. In fact, the film can be read as an expression of the followings of Lenin and Stalin. The exaltation of Lenin after his death was part and parcel to Stalin’s increasing power, and Three Songs of Lenin supplies this process by concentrating on the influence of individuals.
Vertov’s use of montage has several key implications for the film, including how it revises the history of Lenin, Stalin’s rise to power, and predominantly life in the non-Russian Soviet republics. Historical revisionism in Three Songs of Lenin should not only be accredited to Stalinism, but also to Vertov’s use of montage. Unlike Vertov’s depiction of Soviet life in The Man with a Movie Camera, which requires a slightly urbane analysis of documentary film to correctly understand the film as historical in nature, the historical revisionism in Three Songs of Lenin is far more apparent. The first song, quite short in length, likens the darkness of the Muslim woman’s veil to the darkness of blindness, and disputes that Lenin was answerable for removing their veils, and thus their blindness. The second song deals with Lenin’s death and life, and the process. The final song glorifies life in the Soviet Union after Lenin's death, and attributes, implicitly, much of this progress to the direction of Stalin.
Like Eisenstein, Vertov shaped his theory around the shifting political climate during the Cultural Revolution and after in response to Socialist Realism. The result is film which bridges earlier Soviet philosophy with Stalinism. The historical revisionism in Three Songs of Lenin occurs both in the socialist realist representation of the Soviet Union under Stalin, and the subtler opinions that Vertov makes through montage. Whether it is the explicit revision of history which suggests that unveiling was a simple process popularized through the acumen of Lenin, or the implied argument that Stalin was the denotatively reborn Lenin, the editing and deceit of Soviet history at the hands of Vertov was essential to the creation of Three Songs of Lenin. Though the cult of Lenin had begun to reduce in significance following the rise of the Stalin’s cult, Vertov’s film augmented the fiction of both. He conclusively created a work of art that echoed the contesting ideas of the pre- and post-Cultural Revolution eras.
Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov pitch alluring understanding into art in the Soviet Union and how artists were compelled to adjust during and after the Cultural Revolution. Both directors made historical films that, both before and after the Cultural Revolution reworked history to mirror their own ideas as well as those of the Soviet government. They were advocates of montage, which was advertised as true socialist art, and just as quickly belittled as ceremonial. Montage, of course, was not subject to a single set of rules and both filtered their use of montage through their own experience. Their doctrines about film, while similar, were also in conflict, most conspicuously in their animosity between the practicality and appeal of acted film. To Eisenstein, acted film led to the capacity to compose just the meaning he assumed, while Vertov desired to show the truth through documentary, non-acted, film. Their similarities and discrepancies as thinkers and filmmakers makes analyzing their progress a captivating look at how individuals negotiated with the burdensome nature of the Cultural Revolution and sought to contend their individuality in the face of Stalinism. Of course, the films did not live in a void, and were not altered solely by Soviet policies. They were also influenced by the emerging society around them, which emulated and often times refused the unstables beliefs of the Soviet government.
The films discussed earlier revised, edited, or sought to create the history of the Soviet Union in some type of way. The fabrication of events, whether they were real events or altogether assembled, was a constitutional if not enunciated component of both Eisenstein and Vertov’s theories of montage. The appetite to find a socialist art form adequate of circulating the truth according to socialism led both directors to articulate truth only from an ideological standpoint. They not only incorrectly advertised historical events, but also accredited to them false emotions, ideological consequences and results. Whether it was the tacit mass involvement in the Russian Revolution in October, the industrialization in The Man with a Movie Camera, the novelized relationship between Ivan and his subjects in Ivan the Terrible, or the idolization of Lenin and the transmission of timelessness to Stalin in Three Songs of Lenin, the formulation of meaning through montage ultimately led to the creation of erroneous history as well.
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