Soviet Montage Theory: Exploring the 5 Types of Montage
We discuss the core historical tenets of Soviet Montage Theory, then explore the main types of montage for your film and video projects.
In the vast history of film and video, there’s perhaps no cinematic or editing technique more recognizable or powerful than the montage. Movie-lovers like us see it in cheesy hits from the 1980s and 1990s like Bloodsport and Dirty Dancing. We see it in critically acclaimed art films like The Godfather and Citizen Kane. We even see its classical roots in Battleship Potemkin (1925) and recreated and homaged in The Untouchables (1987).
But, what is a montage, really? And what makes this film editing technique so emotive and useful? The best way to understand is to go back to its origins and explore the core basics of Soviet Montage Theory. From these origins, we can outline the five basic types of montage. Plus, for those interested in using this powerful technique, understanding the different approaches can help you better harness the montage for your film and video projects.
The Montage of Attractions
Before we dive into the different individual types of montage, let’s take a step back to look at how the film montage originally developed. While Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein is credited as the godfather of the montage and pioneer of the Soviet montage theory, we can also trace the use of montage to early Hollywood filmmakers like Slavko Vorkapić and Don Siegel in the 1930s and 40s.
However, as you can see in the video above, it was truly Eisenstein who gave the montage its creative flair. He developed his famous “methods of montage” across his career, with the most notable example of each of his methods predominantly featured in his landmark achievement Battleship Potemkin. These five basic methods of montage (montage being a French word for “assemble” or “edit”) are as follows:
Let’s take a further look into each of these unique types and styles of montage to explore how they work, and how you can use them in your film and video projects.
Here’s an example below of the “metric” montage from Eisenstein’s film October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1927).
This first method of montage example is perhaps the most rudimentary, or by the book, in terms of how it’s technically achieved. The metric montage method edits together different shots by following to an exact measurement or number of frames. These measurements of frames aren’t picked based on any feeling or emotional connection. Instead, the creator goes by a strict measurement and sticks to it. The metric approach also translates most simply to how many might edit a montage in a digital NLE editing platform like Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro.
The overall effect is a bit chaotic (as you can see in the example above). Moreover, as filmmakers learned early on, the effects of this method can be frustrating as well as cinematically jarring.
Here’s an example below of the “rhythmic” montage method from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin‘s “Odessa steps” sequence.
Unlike metric, though, the second basic method of montage is far more cinematically acceptable. In fact, its basic tenets make it a key piece of film editing that actually defines how we view and consume film and video content even today. This “rhythmic” method is defined by editing shots together according to the context of each shot. If this definition sounds familiar, it’s basically describing how we edit any manner of shots in any film project. The “Odessa steps” sequence (above), has been homaged, copied, and parodied over the years as a staple of cinematic editing.
That’s right. From simple dialogue scenes to fights scenes and epic car chases, when you’re watching film and television, you’re actually watching montage theory in action. Many scenes and sequences employ this rhythmic montage technique by making compositional decisions as to how long each shot plays before the next one intercuts. In turn this gives the audience the perceived experience of following along with the dialogue, story, and action.
Here’s another example from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, which showcases the “tonal” method of montage.
I really like exploring montage theory and these basic methods. It’s such an informative study into how filmmaking pioneers were able to problem-solve creating film as an artform. Moving on from the basic example of metric and rhythmic montage methods, tonal brings more factors into play. It’s defined by how it edits based on the emotional meanings—or tone—of each shot.
As you can see in the example above, the filmmaker was experimenting with how cutting certain shots together, when combined with the context images and the musical accompaniment, could create tone. We can see this further in examples from the original YouTube video. This tonal style has helped inform filmmakers’ editing decisions across decades of cinema classics.
Moving deeper into not just montage theory, but film theory itself, we have the overtonal or associational methods of montage. This method further combines all the elements of metric, rhythmic, and tonal montage methods together to create montages that have an even greater effect on how audiences can perceive a film’s “tones” or “overtones.”
Again, using montage theory as a lens to view film theory and how filmmakers create cinema as an artform unto itself, these examples of overtonal and associational montage showcase how filmmakers can further use all elements of filmmaking—composition, soundtrack, and editing—to create abstract themes and rich tapestries of meaning. This montage from Vsevolod Pudovkin‘s Mother is an example of how these elements can create deeper meanings in shots.
Combining all the methods from before, here’s an example of the “intellectual” montage method as seen in Eisenstein’s October.
Finally, continuing in the vein of how overtonal and associational montage methods combine all the previous basic montage techniques, the intellectual montage method is perhaps the final—and truest—form of the cinematic montage. However, it’s also perhaps more notable in its simplicity. The intellectual approach is meant to edit together shots simply to create an intellectual meaning—a definition with broad confines in regards to how a filmmaker or editor might want to shape a film or sequence.
You can see examples of this intellectual montage method throughout Eisenstein’s most famous works, notably in the above clip from his film October. This film in particular is a masterclass into how to use all the elements of montage together to create some truly beautiful, yet startling, examples.
Yet, when you start to look through cinema history at some of the most famous (and perhaps infamous) montage sequences ever edited, such as the ending montage from Apocalypse Now, you can see that the intellectual method is often simply a reflection of a film’s overall theme or message. The montage is once again merely a tool in a filmmaker’s arsenal to convey character, story, and meaning.
Overall, understanding these different methods of montages, as well as exploring the cinematic history of Soviet Montage Theory, can be a great exercise. Not only will you find more on how to cut together a film or scene, but it’s also a further dive into how to develop your cinematic art as a means to explore grander motifs and themes.
Cover image of Sergei Eisenstein via Otto Dyar/Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock.
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