Home - Research

Image: Eight stills from Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin

Definition: "In film language 'montage' means the uniting of shots of seemingly unrelated objects in the same film sequence so that they take on a new relationship to each other in the mind of the viewer."1

The classical example of montage technique is the film Potemkin by Eisenstein (1927) - however, we are surrounded by montage: nearly every MTV video is a montage, as are most TV commercials.

Montage segments are typically short: Eisenstein used shots from 1/2 second to about 14 seconds in Potemkin - the majority of his shots were about 2 1/2 seconds long.

Single Time Stream: In Potemkin, the famous sequence on the Odessa Steps shows the same event from multiple points of view as it occurs. There is only one time stream. Televised football and baseball games routinely use this "real time" montage technique - cutting rapidly from reaction shots of the crowd, to the pitcher's windup, to the batter, to the manager, back to the crowd.

Moving Montage Beyond "Real Time"

Multiple Time Streams There is no technical reason the shots in a montage need to be in "real time". The problem is intelligability: without the organizing principle of the single time stream the viewer can become disoriented. Music videos tend not to locate their stream of images in time at all, creating a surreal effect. The music orients the viewer, so a coherent narrative time stream is unneccessary.

Eisenstein's solution: short, meaning carrying vignettes We do not have Eisenstein's solution on film, as Stalin personally intervened to prevent him from experimenting further in montage2 We do have Eisenstein's autobiography, and since Eisenstein thought in montage,3 we can read his solution. All we have to do is translate the words back into the filmic images Eisenstein saw in his head!

In his autobiography, Eisenstein may cover 30 years or more on a single page, including "shots" from incidents thousands of miles and decades apart. There is no narrative stream. Instead, Eisenstein imbeds multiple meanings and interpretations within individual vignettes. These short vignettes, each composed of only a few "shots" and hence only 15-30 seconds long, each carry one thought or interpretation. In some cases, the interpretation is in the form of a voiceover (think Citizen Kane!) The vignettes are combined with individual "shots", which do not carry any meaning on their own.

Interactivity and Eisenstein's solution: An interactive montage would be one where the viewer actively chooses which shots and vignettes are presented via an interface. At present, most such interfaces are based on a narrative metaphor. Eisenstein's autobiography points to a different organizing metaphor: the short, meaning carrying vignette. Imagine a web of such vignettes through which the viewer navigates. The choices the viewer makes build up a unique interpretation of the material. The viewer has become a co-creator of a new, unique, evanescent art form: an interactive montage.

Eisenstein on the Odessa Steps Sequence

". . . once the implacable wheels of evil intent have been set in motion . . .

Once set into motion, the fatal machine of crime automatically pursues its course, whether the criminal intention that set it in motion wishes it or not, opposes or eludes it.

A sort of djinn with a skull and crossbones on the bottle, from which it burst out.

At the basis of this obliging image is a living impression. For this is not the first time that I have used this image of an implacable, automatic, machinelike progression. Prior to this, the impersonal, faceless (without close-ups!) rank of soldiers had moved down the Odessa steps with this same blind implacable march.

Just boots!

And later, again an impersonal, soulless machine, the precursor of Guderian's [a German general] herds of tanks, the rush of the iron "swine" of Teutonic knoights in Nevsky.

Again faceless. This time physically enclosed by helmets, whose eyeslits echo the slits in the future Tigers and Panthers [German tanks].

And further, Vladimir Andreyevich's fatal walk to the frenzied roar of the oprichnike, [Vladimir's murder in Ivan the Terrible] implacably black, again like fate, again with hidden faces, who accompany him like a funeral choir to his death . . .

I once asked myself what had been the most frightening thing in my life, and I vividly recalled the railway lines at Smolensk during the civil war . . . In 1920 I lived in a boxcar on a side track . . .Hammers knocked against axles, as in Anna Karenina's nightmares. The whistles blared in the dark . . .

But this was not what was most frightening. Not the hours spent at night in searching for your car along miles of silent railroad cars . . . But the tail of a long endless train, dozens and dozens of cars long, moving backward, bearing down on you with the blunt snout of the last car.

The red rear lantern glimmered like a solitary unseeing eye. Nothing to stop it nor hold it back.

How many times during my hours of wandering along the tracks have night monsters of trains sneaked up on me so treacherously, alongside me, scarcely clanking, out of the darkness and back into the darkness! Their implacable, blind, pitiless movement has migrated to my films, now dressed in soldier's boots on the Odessa steps, now directing their blunt snouts into knights' helmets in the "Battle on the Ice," now in black vestments sliding over the stone slabs of the cathedral, in the wake of a candle shaking in the hands of the stumbling Vladimir . . .

This image of a night train has wandered from film to film, becoming a symbol of fate.

Later, I myself fall into the tenacious clutches of the image, now come alive."4


1. From Marie Seaton, Sergei M. Eisenstein p. 81 (I have simplified Ms. Seaton's language)

2. For the shooting of Alexander Nevsky Eisenstein was assigned two commissars to work right by his side in the editing room. "This was to make sure there would be no more improvisations such as those that had produced the classic "Odessa Steps" sequence . . . " Herbert Marshall, in his introduction to Eisenstein's autobiography (p. xii)

3. See his chapter on "Images", Immoral Memories pp. 234-5.

4. Sergei M. Eisenstein, Immoral Memories: an Autobiography written in 1946, published posthumously (Houghton Mifflin Co, Boston, 1983), pp 197-8

Back to Top of Page