Russian Cinema: 1918-1920 the Editing Revolution

Actor Ivan Mozhukhin
Actor Ivan Mozhukhin

Russian Cinema 1918-1920

In one year, Russian went through two revolutions, one to overthrow the aristocratic rule and the other to overthrow the provisional government. It was only after the second revolution that the Bolshevic party and its leader Vladimir Lenin created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic.

So, how did the newly formed U.S.S.R. change the film industry? Not much at all. Top directors Bauer and Protazanov made films like The Revolutionary (1918) and Father Sergius (1918) respectively. Bauer didn't, however, get to see the premier since he died in the spring of 1917. There would be a lot of change to come and a new revolution would happen within the industry.

Russian Propaganda

The Bolshevik’s succeeded toppling over the government, but they lacked the power to nationalize the film industry. Instead, they created a department, the People’s Commissariat of Education or Narkompros to oversee the industry. The head or commissar was Anatoli Lunacharsky, a man whose respect for film would play an important part in the evolution of the industry.

Lunacharsky wrote a script, which was directed by a collective and meant as a propaganda piece promoting the new Marxist regime. The film, Cohabitation (1918) emphasized the need to redistribute money and belongings from the very rich to the poor. This would be the first of many propaganda films to emerge from the new Communist government.

Make Films? With What?

The revolution didn’t come without consequence. Many in the film industry saw the writing on the wall and took their companies with them. That meant the USSR lacked cameras, film, film stock, production equipment and most everything you can think of to make a movie.

To invest in the industry, the new regime entrusted 1 million dollars to Jacques Cibrario, a film distributor who had often worked in Russia. He went to the US and purchased useless equipment then ran off with the rest of the money. Needless to say, the government wasn't pleased and the film industry was on notice after that. As a result, only 6 films were made that year and the once thriving industry is almost at a standstill.

It was around this time that Narkompros released its first newsreel. They hired a young director, Dziga Vertov to oversee it and little did they know he would become key to the future of Russian cinema.

Film School Marxist Style

At the end of 1919, Lenin finally nationalized the film industry, what little left there was of it. For the next couple of years, the USSR depended on old films and films that had been stored away as their only output. To insure the film industry didn’t fold under these harsh conditions, Narkompros opened the State Film School. It was only a year later, in 1920 that the school would hire a young director, Lev Kuleshov, who would alter the way film was theorized and studied. But, I’ll say more on that in a bit.

So, what does a film school with no film, no equipment do? They acted out the scene and used picture-like frames to mark the mise-en-scene or even close ups. That’s right, they put on skits and plays to study film and pretended to cut scenes and frame shots. They couldn’t do much else, because, unlike the Germans who painted sets and used limited lighting to compensate for a lack of funds, the newly formed USSR had almost nothing to use and their government had even less to give them. They were persistent.

The group headed by Kuleshov was really inspired by the work of D.W. Griffith and his 1915 classic, The Birth of a Nation. They had little interest in the narrative of the movie, but were fascinated by the way Griffith used editing to instill certain emotions from the audience. This fascination would lead to one of the most used principles in film editing: the Kuleshov effect.

The Kuleshov Effect

Simply put, the Kuleshov effect is editing scenes together without any regard to continuity, time or special context. What Kuleshov did was take old footage of actor Ivan Mozhukhin where his expression was neutral. He then mixed in other shots of random subject matter such as: a bowl of soup, a dead body and other items with no relation to the scene Ivan’s original shot was taken from. What happened next would alter the way film was viewed. The audiences watched and thought Ivan’s performance was stellar, when, in fact, his expression never changed and was the same for every performance.

Kuleshov had many experiments and though the one with Ivan no longer exists, there were others that showed several other theories about the way viewers experience film. All revolved around the importance of editing as opposed to the individual shot and placed montage as central to the audience’s filmmaking experience. Though this seems like a no-brainer, it hadn't been studied and Kuleshov was the first to theorize and explain why a film like Birth of a Nation was so powerful.

Though the video below isn't the original (despite what the title says), it shows the Kuleshov effect while using actor Ivan Mozhukhin. I imagine the original was very similar to this one and one can easily see how an audience could see an array of emotion in one non-committal shot.

The Kuleshov effect would eventually mold the new filmmakers that would emerge from these studies. Out was the slow moving narrative with emphasis on inner turmoil. In was the fast pace editing of seemingly unconnected shots, action shots and montage sequences. This group wanted to match the United States' success and then top it. The had the theories, the film education and a slew of young directors waiting for their chance at showing their work. All they needed was film, equipment and money. Soon, they'd get it.

More by this Author


17 comments

CarltheCritic1291 profile image

CarltheCritic1291 4 years ago

Russia has a very fascinating history with film making. Their experiments with film editing were legendary, especially the Kuleshov experiment (in film school, we study the Russian history of cinema, and watched a lot of old Russian experimental films,). Sometimes, Russian film students use to take old silent films from around the world, cut them up, and re-edit them to tell a different story. A lot of modern day film editing techniques come from good old Soviet Russia. Great Hub, keep up the great work, Voted Up, Useful, Awesome, and Interesting :)


vmartinezwilson profile image

vmartinezwilson 4 years ago from Vancouver, WA Author

Thank you Carl. I also studied Russian cinema in film school, as you can see! Although I've always favored early German cinema and Expressionism, there is no doubt that the Russian revolutionized editing and the current way audiences experienced film. What stood out to me the most was that they did most of it with little actual film and that they did use old film stock (which was purchased for them) as their learning tools. I can't even imagine how difficult that must have been, yet they persevered and excelled at what they did.

Thanks so much and it's always good to discuss film history.


Stevennix2001 profile image

Stevennix2001 4 years ago

Very detailed work that you've constructed here, as I always seem to find myself learning a lot of new things from you every time I read one of your hubs. From reading your work, I can tell you definitely have a deeper understanding about movies, and it's intricate history, than most people that I met, so it's not surprising you already acquired so many followers in such a short amount of time.

Anyway, be sure to keep up the good work, as I always enjoy reading them. By the way, thanks for linking my hub to yours here, as that's very nice of you. I'll definitely be sure to return the favor. :)


vmartinezwilson profile image

vmartinezwilson 4 years ago from Vancouver, WA Author

I try to be detailed, it's my OCD and anal retentiveness that won't let me do it any other way. There has been so much said about most films, I always feel the need to add something new, no matter how small.

It's my pleasure to link your work! I love reading your hubs and when I get some spare time, I'm going to go read some more and link those that have relevant content to my hub. I figure if people are reading my hubs, they'd love yours too. :)

Thanks a ton!


Sueswan 4 years ago

I was not familiar with the Kuleshov effect. It clearly shows the impact and importance of editing in film.

Voted up and across the board except for funny.


vmartinezwilson profile image

vmartinezwilson 4 years ago from Vancouver, WA Author

Editing is an art that is often overlooked and I was amazed at how much these directors were able to do with so little equipment.

Thanks you and though I don't bring the haha for my film history hubs, I give an effort for my others. :) I will admit that it's not a strong point, but I try.


bri36 4 years ago

Always interesting when I visit your pages. I am very impressed with the way you put together the hubs and with the amount of information that you always include for the rest of us. Thanks for giving insight to what it is we all are trying to do. Yes I voted^


vmartinezwilson profile image

vmartinezwilson 4 years ago from Vancouver, WA Author

I always wonder if it's enough information. I write a lot of notes from my books and stuff I find online, put them in chronological order and struggle about what I have to leave out. I leave out a lot! I'm glad you enjoy them.

Thank you so much Bri!


innersmiff profile image

innersmiff 4 years ago from UK

How funny! I just did a presentation on this very same subject at Film School. Very informative!


vmartinezwilson profile image

vmartinezwilson 4 years ago from Vancouver, WA Author

My profs were really big on Russian cinema, though I prefer German film history. Did my notes do me justice or am I off? :)

I hope your presentation went well. Thanks!


innersmiff profile image

innersmiff 4 years ago from UK

You are right on the Kuleshov effect, which I talked about. I went into a lot of detail about the different areas of Eisenstein's Thoery of Montage and how you can apply it.


vmartinezwilson profile image

vmartinezwilson 4 years ago from Vancouver, WA Author

I almost did a hub about Eisenstein, because he had so many good point about film theory. I didn't because I had some other hubs in the works as well, but it would be a good one to do at some point in time.


DIYmyOmy profile image

DIYmyOmy 4 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

Thanks so much for posting this great article! I haven't seen The Kuleshov Experiment since I audited a film history class at Princetown University in the 80's, and I'd completely forgotten about it. The prof for the course particularly noted how it's been used to illustrate one of the tenets of video ads--that people read emotion into static images based on their context. Voted it up, awesomed it as well!


vmartinezwilson profile image

vmartinezwilson 4 years ago from Vancouver, WA Author

DIY, I don't think it's exactly what they were thinking, but it really did revolutionize the way editing is used. Music videos use it to the same effect. My favorites are always the avante guard type films that use the Kuleshov effects in an attempt to convey deeper meaning, like Takashi Miike's Izo. It doesn't always work, but it's interesting to see theories from the 1920 being used today!

Thanks a bunch!


vmartinezwilson profile image

vmartinezwilson 4 years ago from Vancouver, WA Author

DIY, I don't think it's exactly what they were thinking, but it really did revolutionize the way editing is used. Music videos use it to the same effect. My favorites are always the avante guard type films that use the Kuleshov effects in an attempt to convey deeper meaning, like Takashi Miike's Izo. It doesn't always work, but it's interesting to see theories from the 1920 being used today!

Thanks a bunch!


liljohnderb profile image

liljohnderb 4 years ago from Hampton/Keene, NH

I'm studying film production in college, and one of the courses we take is film history, where we go over the Russian montage era and people like Eisenstein and Vertov and the likes. It's really quite interesting. I realize in this article you're more so focusing on propaganda films, but it really makes you wonder where film would be right now without people like this. Or without movies like Man with a Movie Camera or Strike or any other Russian montage film. It had such a huge impact on psychological effects!


vmartinezwilson profile image

vmartinezwilson 4 years ago from Vancouver, WA Author

Lijohnderb, I am amazed at how these theorists conceptualized film in such a visual manner without being able to really put it on film.

I think that filmmakers already had editing effects in mind when creating their works early on. Take D.W. Griffith, who Vertov and Eisenstein were inspired by. He was already practicing their ideas about editing, but what he did in practice; they were able to verbalize and, more importantly, teach. In that manner, they paved the way for future filmmakers to understand what they are doing and why they are doing it.

As for films like Man with a Movie Camera, Strike, Battleship Potemptkin or Mother, the way we look at film was truly never the same. The works of Griffith are studied because of their effect and importance, but the works of the Russian montagists are not only studied, but beloved and enjoy.

Thanks so much!

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working