How Soviet Cinema Gave the Movie Camera its Eyes [No Film School]


In 1896, the Lumiere Brothers brought their new cinematograph contraption to Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia to show off some of the first motion pictures ever made. In that same month appeared Russia’s first motion picture: the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II at the Kremlin (Martin 21). By 1917, when Nicholas’ reign ended and the Bolsheviks took control after the October Revolution, the Russian film industry was producing over a hundred films each year (Martin 21).

The Bolsheviks were quick to realize the power of cinema as a propaganda tool, and soon a “post-imperial” cinema was born (Martin 21).

On August 27th, 1919, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin signed “the Council of People’s Commissars of the RSFSR Decree ‘On the transfer of the photographic trade and industry to Narkompros,” which nationalized private film and thus created Soviet cinema (Smith 284).

Six film studios led the early years of Soviet cinema —the largest of these only had around 100 employees (Smith 284). By the mid-20s, new studios popped up and others merged. In 1924, two major studios unified in a village outside of Moscow, becoming the biggest studio in Russia. In 1935, the completed studio was named Mosfilm, whose logo you may have seen in front of some of Russia’s greatest movies (Smith 284).

In 1924, the leading Russian filmmakers, under the leadership of Sergei Eisenstein and Lev Kuleshov, started the Association of Revolutionary Cinema. Their aim was to [quote] “reinforce ideological control over the creative process” (Smith 285).  In 1929, the Association of Revolutionary Cinema became the Associations of Workers of Revolutionary Cinematography with a new mission to create [quote] “100 percent proletarian ideological film” (Smith 285).  This group wanted to throw out everything pre-revolution and create films that reflected the current ideology. This was achieved with two techniques: first, a focus on realism, and second, even more important, the use of montage (or editing) to create meaning (Smith 289).

The widespread use of montage theory grew out of a lack of available film stock. Film theorist and director Lev Kuleshov—who helped create the first ever film school—often had his students re-edit D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation to learn how meaning was created (Martin 21). Kuleshov and his people even went so far as to re-edit pre-revolution Russian films in order to rid them of the bourgeoisie messages of the past (Smith 289). As a result, Kuleshov developed one of the most important concepts in montage theory; this came to be known as the “Kuleshov effect.” Kuleshov cut together several identical shots of an actor named Ivan Mozzhukhin with different shots including those of a bowl of soup, a dead child, and a beautiful woman. Although the shot of Ivan is the same, over and over, his expression seems to change because of the image following it.

This proved to Kuleshov that in cinema, it is the way images relate to each other that creates meaning—not the images themselves. This concept is one of the most important pillars of filmmaking. It is very natural for audiences to relate two sequential images to each other to create anything from an ideological meaning to even a comedic effect.

Sergei Eisenstein, one of Kuleshov’s students, developed his own theory on montage that viewed the juxtaposition of shots as conflict, as a collision of images with shots building upon each other to create and change meaning with each following shot (Martin 22). He classified these collisions into five categories: metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal, and intellectual. Let’s focus on Eisenstein’s use of intellectual montage. Intellectual montage uses the relationship between two images to create an intellectual—often symbolic—meaning. In his 1924 film Strike, about factory workers revolting against poor working conditions, Eisenstein cuts back and forth between the workers being attacked by the military to shots of a bull being slaughtered to suggest that the working class itself is being slaughtered like an animal. A similar concept was used in this scene in Apocalypse Now.

Another interesting example from the same film shows wealthy shareholders drinking liquor and trying to use a device to squeeze the juice out of a lemon while the military attempts to break the strike by force. There are countless examples of this concept being used in later films.

Pudovkin, another one of Kuleshov’s students, on the other hand, saw montage not as conflict, but instead as a way to create cohesion between shots and scenes.  Instead of Eisenstein’s collision of shots, Pudovkin thought shots could work together to build a film.

Eisenstein and Pudovkin differed most in their approach to point of view. Eisenstein’s films usually didn’t have a main character; each story was told through the eyes of a large group of people in order to better create a collective experience. Pudovkin opted for a more individual viewpoint, centering a film on the experiences of one character. Pudovkin’s most famous film, titled Mother, follows a woman joining the revolution after her son is imprisoned. Pudovkin uses several instances of ice as a metaphor for the tsarist rule, which by the end of the film, cracks and thaws (Martin 24).

Another extremely influential Soviet director was Dziga Vertov, who got his start making newsreels for Kino-Nedelya—a weekly film series. Vertov called fictional drama a [quote] “bourgeois fairytale” and preferred documentary filmmaking, which he called “life caught unawares” (Martin 25). Vertov called the camera a “cine eye” that takes in an objective view of what it sees. This doesn’t mean that Vertov was against montage. In fact, you can see how important he found montage theory in his most famous film, The Man with the Movie Camera.

The Man with the Movie Camera is a self-reflexive film that follows a man capturing city life while also showing the process of making the film. (Martin 26). We see the man using a camera, the footage being edited, and people watching the film. The film uses pretty much every technique you can think of including slow motion, freeze frames, and even stop-motion-animation (Martin 26). The film is without plot and falls into a niche genre known as a “city symphony.” Vertov’s next film—also a “city symphony”—was filmed in the Ukraine and titled Enthusiasm: Donbass Symphony.

Ukraine was the birthplace of another influential Soviet filmmaker—Alexander Dovzhenko. Dovzhenko is most known for his “Ukranian Trilogy” made up of ZvenigoraArsenal, and Earth. These films were mostly inspired by Ukranian folklore and seemed to display the principles of the revolutionary mindset (Martin 27). However, the Communist Party felt the opposite. They saw Earth as being against the revolution and Arsenal being against war, and therefore, against the revolution as well (Martin 27). Despite the issues at home, these films found success overseas. Dovzhenko went on to direct several successful mainstream sound films (Martin 27).

By the 1930s, Joseph Stalin had become dictator of the Soviet Union. Soviet filmmaking transformed largely into what was called “socialist realism,” which depicted a Soviet Union happy under Stalin’s rule. Many of the great filmmakers who defined Soviet formalism were now forced back into the shadows, creating bland newsreels and wartime documentaries (Martin 27).



Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895 dir. Louis Lumière)

L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895 dir. Auguste Lumière, Louis Lumière)

Tsar Nicholas II Coronation – via ITN Source

Man with a Movie Camera (1929 dir. Dziga Vertov)

October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928 Sergei Eisenstein, Grigori Aleksandrov)

Battleship Potemkin (1926 dir. Sergei Eisenstein)

The Birth of a Nation (1915 dir. D.W. Griffith)

Defence of Sevastopol (1911 dir. Aleksandr Khanzhonkov
Vasily Goncharov)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962 dir. David Lean)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968 dir. Stanley Kubrick)

Me, Myself & Irene (2000 dir. Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly)

Strike (1925 dir. Sergei Eisenstein)

Apocalypse Now (1979 dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

Mother (1926 dir. Vsevolod Pudovkin)


The Donbass Symphony (1931 dir. Dziga Vertov)

Zvenigora (1928 dir. Alexander Dovzhenko)

Arsenal (1929 dir. Alexander Dovzhenko)

Earth (1930 dir. Alexander Dovzhenko)