Critical Essay – Morality of Soviet Union Montage Cinema


Q: How do the formal strategies (the way film form is deployed or used) of any of the films screened in the course respond to, engage with or express ethical or political concerns? Discuses with reference to Jean Luc Godard’s claim that “Tracking shots are a question of morality”.


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This essay’s point of departure is from Jean Luc Goddard’s assertion that “tracking shots are a question of morality”. This essay will consider how Soviet Union Director, Sergei Eisenstein’s enforcement of montage in his cinema, and in particular, his film Strike (1925, Soviet Union), expresses ethical concerns that resonate with a similar veracity and intensity as to Goddard’s statement. This essay will explore the moral issues found within the notorious tracking shot in Kapo (Pontecorvo, 1960, Italy) as well as Eisenstein’s implementation of the montage technique, whilst considering an excerpt from Strike. Additionally, this essay will hold focus on Eisenstein’s use of montage and will investigate the representation of murder within his films, his intent for the synthesis of his formal strategies along with his desire to portray a representation of reality in his cinema. In doing so, this essay hopes to suggest that the montage strategies that Eisenstein applied to his cinema expresses moral concerns.


The employment of the cinematic technique of a forward tracking shot in Kapo, when Terese (Emmanuelle Riva) assumes her death by lunging herself onto a barbwire fence has experienced an upheaval of concern over the Director, Gilo Pontecorvo’s moral intentions and the positioning of the audience. Similarly to the montage strategies implemented by Sergei Eisenstein in his film, Strike (which we will delve into shortly) both Directors have been criticized to have wrongly emplaced spectators in the surveillance of death. Serge Daney (2004), states that “Pontecorvo’s tracking shot was immoral for the simple reason that it was putting us – him, filmmaker and me spectator – in a place where we did not belong, where I could not and did not want to be, because he “deported” me from my real situation as a spectator-witness forcing me to be part of the picture”. In both instances, it can be argued that the spectator is no longer just a viewer but the formal strategies applied by the Directors encourage the viewer to feel as though they are partaking in a ferocious reality as represented onscreen. Furthermore, Goddard expressed further distaste for Kapo and numerous other Holocaust films for their inability to represent reality when addressing the Holocaust.


Eisenstein’s application of montage commands the spectator to become an active contributor in forming associations found between the combined ‘shot modules’ to produce meaning. The scene of focus from the film, Strike, is the montage sequence where the slaughtering of a cow is juxtaposed with the shooting down of hundreds of civilians. Eisenstein (1998, pg. 178) tells, “In montage pieces, each of which provokes a certain association, the sum of which amounts to a composite complex of emotional feeling”. Eisenstein (1998, pg. 176) also states that the brutal murdering of the cow along with the rhythmic movement within the shot was intercut into the scene as an ‘appropriate association’ to construct a strong ‘emotional dynamisation’. Bordwell (1972, pg. 14) draws on Eisenstein’s critical theory, ‘primary elements in the construction of a theatrical production’ and speaks of the Eisenstein’s use of montage to create ‘aggressive moments’ that intend to guide the viewer into a “desired direction or mood”.


The radically unique montage style that Soviet Union filmmakers exhibited in their works from 1923 – 1930 provoked political concerns as well as ethical. Bordwell (1993, pg. 112) speaks of Eisenstein’s proclamation “that cinema had to be politically progressive and must steer the audience in a useful direction”. In the Soviet Union montage era, Eisenstein believed that art in the newly formed Soviet state needed to inform, educate and most importantly, influence civilians (Bordwell, 1993, pg. 115). Additionally, Bordwell (1972, pg. 9) speaks of montage’s purpose and formulaic devices to present the filmmaker’s ideals in stating, “Montage was used to build a narrative (by formulating an artificial time and space or guiding the viewer’s attention from one narrative point to another), to control rhythm, to create metaphors and to make rhetorical points”. However, Eisenstein was offended by the prevailing criticism after the release of his first two critical essays on the theory of his montage style with film critics advising that his method was too politically orientated.


Soviet Union filmmakers of the era were enticed by the power and emotion their art could produce in a spectator, perhaps being a response to the political environment in the Soviet Union at the time. Eisenstein’s notion on the ability to ‘infect spectators with emotion’ is told to have aligned with the ideals of artists, Tolstoy and Bukrain, who stressed art’s power to ‘infect’ the audience (Bordwell, 1993, pg. 116). Additionally, the productions of artisan works were subject to political forces beyond their control. It should be noted that the uprise and demise of film production of Soviet Union montage came about from government regulations. Both Eisenstein and likeminded film scholar, Vetov released critical essays on montage in 1923. Shortly after, the Government’s ‘New Economic Policy’ came into affect thus relieving the economy and allowing for numerous film production companies to join forces to be a part of the production company, Sovkino (Bordwell, 1972, pg.14). This inspired innovation in cinema practices and encouraged experimental filmmaking. Additionally, the influence that Eisenstein and Vertov’s critical essays had on filmmakers of the time worked in conjunction with the economic change and encouraged montage cinema to become the dominant method of focus for avant-garde filmmakers. However, after the regulation on artisan practices by the Central Committee in 1932, ‘socialist realism’ became the authorized style, condemning montage from all art forms (Bordwell, 1972, pg.15).


Eisenstein secludes his formal strategies in his use of montage from a film’s narrative and plot, however his devices rely heavily on associative formal systems to portray meaning. Eisenstein’s theses on the stylisations of montage and his dialectic approach is based on the juxtaposition of imagines from one shot ‘module’ to the next and the conflict between the succession of images shown, thus deriving the spectator with a concept or abstract idea. Eisenstein (198, pg. 164) argues that “the incongruity in contour between the first picture that has been imprinted on the mind and the subsequently perceived second picture – the conflict between the two – gives birth to the sensation of movement, the idea that movement has taken place”. Furthermore, Eisenstein parallels his device to the systemisation of Japanese ideogram and its ability to create transcendent concepts. Eisenstein (1998, pg.164) proposes that similarly to Japanese ideogram, two elements that are independent form one another are juxtaposed together and “explode into concept”. Additionally, Bordwell (1972, pg. 9) relays Eisenstein’s (along with other notable Soviet Union filmmakers of the period such as Kuleshov, Pudovkin and Verto) ideal that “filmic meaning is built out of an assemblage of shots which creates a new synthesis, an overall meaning that lies not within each part, or as Eisenstein labels ‘montage module’, but in the very fact or juxtaposition”.


The excerpt of focus from Eisenstein’s Strike intends to stimulate the spectator’s emotions to represent the brutality of death through use of montage. Eisenstein (1998, pg. 179) states, “The most important thing is to convey the representation of murder, the feeling of murder”. Eisenstein aims to produce emotional shock or what he describes as ‘emotional dynamisation’ in the viewer through the collision of shots seen on screen. The montage sequence in ‘Strike’ that is under analysis in this essay, entices a psychological influence and a bodily reaction in the viewer, one that Eisenstein hopes stimulates entire thought processes. Speaking of the viciousness of Eisenstein’s cinema, Bordwell (1993, pg. 116) states, “Soviet Union cinema must crack sculls” when referring to Eisenstein’s comprehension that “It is not a cine-eye we need but a cine-fist”.


Eisenstein desired to portray a representation of reality in his films through use of montage – by engaging spectators emotionally and physical as well as through cinematic representation of the real world. Throughout Eisenstein’s filmmaking and research, he has maintained a strong focus to achieve a representation of reality through his audience’s perception. Bordwell (1993, pg. 112) argues “Eisenstein aimed to locate the essence of cinematic representations and to determine its unique reality to perceptual reality”. Furthermore, Eisenstein’s ambition to produce a sense of reality aligns with his desire as a filmmaker to “Inform, educate and influence civilians” (Bordwell, 1993, pg. 115). Eisenstein spoke of other soviet director’s employment of the montage technique for a dramatic emotional affect that he labels ‘emotional dynamisation’ however tells of its fragility, whilst suggesting the technique’s representation of reality in stating, “This method may decay pathologically if the essential viewpoint – the emotional dynamisation of the material – gets lost” (177). “Then it ossifies into lifeless literary symbolism an stylistic mannerism”. Eisenstein’s Futurist ideological and political viewpoints found within his cinema along with his desired goals suggests that he wanted to open up civilians to the idea of a revolution. Furthermore, the Director’s intenti for the audience to ascertain a certain reality and veracity from his films, as notable in Strike, poses further ethical tribulations.


Goddard also realised the power of montage later on is his career and claimed that cinema could depict the real world through use of montage. Goddard and Eisenstein were both highly politically focused in their careers and both believed montage was the gateway to cinema’s representation of the real world. Interestingly, their overarching aim for what they wanted to achieve from the use of montage or more so, commanding the audience’s engagement, differed greatly. Analysis into Eisenstein’s notions on montage suggests that he wanted to encourage action within civilians to revolt. However, Goddard desired to entice revelations through his use of montage sequences in his films. Additionally. Goddard considered the representation of the horrors of the Holocaust and the failure for filmmakers to confront Nazi genocide, such as in the efforts in Kapo, to pale in comparison to Eisenstein’s treatment of the representation of reality when addressing war (Witt, 1999, pg. 334).


This essay has explored Sergei Eisenstein’s enforcement of montage in his cinema and it’s ethical and political concerns. In doing so, this essay has drawn on research to analyse Eisenstein’s montage technique, his intent in portraying a representation of reality and the representation of death onscreen. Additionally, this essay observed Eisenstein’s desire to engage the audience through use of montage to create concept and to provoke action. Furthermore, this essay has considered the morality of Eisenstein’s application of montage in relation to Goddard’s observation of tracking shots to consider moral issues that come from the implementation of Eisenstein’s montage strategies.



Word Count: 1943



Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. New York, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, 2013. Print.

Bordwell, D. 1972. “Montage in Soviet Art”. Cinema Journal (Society for Cinema & Media Studies), Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 9-17

Eisenstein, Sergi. “The dramaturgy of Film Theory Form (The Dialectic Approach to Film Form)”. The Eisenstein Reader. Richard Taylor, Trans and William Powell, London: BFI, 1998, 93-100

Methods of montage. In Eisenstein, Sergi; Leyda, Jay (ed & trans). Film form: essays in film theory, (p.72-83). London: Harcourt B. Jovanovich 1949.

Senses of Cinema. 2004. The Tracking Shot in Kapo. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 29 May 14].

Witt, M. “The deaths of cinema according to Goddard”. In screen, vol. 40, no. 3 Autumm, 1999. p. 331-346

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