At first glance the film theories of Sergei Eisenstein and André Bazin seem to be fundamentally different. Eisenstein puts at the center of his theory a sophisticated concept of montage while Bazin favors the long deep focus shot of Orson Welles and Italian Neorealism. In this paper I try to show that despite all these differences the two theories still share common ground, insofar as they are both interested in the question of realism, i.e. if and how film can show us the essence of something. It is Bazin who in the most explicit way point out the importance of essence for film: “I have never been to a bullfight, and it would be ridiculous of me to claim that the film¹ lets me feel the same emotions, but I do claim that it gives me its essential quality, its metaphysical kernel: death” (Bazin 2003, 29 – my emphasis). The argument I develop here is that both theories share this function of film as a common goal but favor different ways to reach it. I’ll start by discussing how the concept of essence can be found in both theories and then point out the differences and similarities.
Essence in Eisenstein’s Theory
At the center of Eisenstein’s idea of essence stands the idea of dialectic. He draws heavily on marxist ideas, for example when he begins his text “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form” with the following quote: “According to Marx and Engels the dialectic system is only the conscious reproduction of the dialectic course (substance) of the external events of the world”² (Eisenstein 1977a, 45 – my emphasis). The second part of the sentence seems to be the crucial one. The concept of dialectic that Eisenstein has in mind is not only a way of thinking but instead it resembles or even reproduces the way the world really works. In other words: for Eisenstein the reality is dialectical. A way of thinking that tries to grasp this reality therefore has itself to be dialectical too. That is the reason why at the center of Eisenstein’s theory of montage stands explicitly the dialectical motif of conflict: “So, montage is conflict. As the basis of every art is conflict (an ‚imagist‘ transformation of the dialectical principle)” (Eisenstein 1977b, 38). The reason for Eisenstein why art has to be dialectical is that its object is dialectical too: “It is art’s task to make manifest the contradictions of Being” (ibid., 46).
It is important to note that Eisenstein with this conception not only breaks with Pudovkin’s idea of montage but also with Griffith. For Eisenstein Griffith’s parallel montage “appears to be a copy of his dualistic picture of the world” while on the other hand the Russian “concept of montage had to be born from an entirely different ‚image‘ of an understanding of phenomena, which was opened to us by a worldview both monistic and dialectic” (Eisenstein 1977c, 235). The reasons Eisenstein gives us why the Russian theory of montage for him is more advanced than the American once again show how closely he links his film theory with a general materialistic philosophy: “The question of montage imagery is based on a definite structure and system of thinking; it derives and has been derived only through collective consciousness, appearing as a reflection of a new (socialist) stage of human society and as a thinking result of ideal and philosophic education, inseparably connected with the social structure of that society” (ibid., 245).
The reason why I dealt with Eisenstein’s conception of dialectic in such great length is that in it we can find the answer to the question how Eisenstein thinks about realism and essence. Montage following Eisenstein is realist because it follows the same principles as reality itself. It should be no surprise than that montage in this view becomes a method that is privileged to show us the essence of reality. This essence of reality is what in montage is meaning.
Following Eisenstein meaning doesn’t simply reveal itself, instead we need montage to show what something means, i.e. what its essence is. When Eisenstein for example in October (1928) intercuts Kerenski with pictures of a mechanical peacock he tries to point us to the essence of Kerenski. Similar when in Strike (1925) in the famous montage of soldiers shooting at a demonstration with pictures from a slaughterhouse where “’butchering‘ is the associative link” (Eisenstein 1977a, 57), it is also this “butchering” that is the essence of what’s happening. Or in Bazin’s words: with the means of montage Eisenstein tries to lay bare the scene’s “essential quality, its metaphysical kernel” (Bazin 2003, 29).
Essence in Bazin’s Theory
Bazin labels Eisenstein’s approach as one that puts its “faith in the image” (Bazin 2005a, 24) which by the use of montage creates “a sense or meaning not objectively contained in the images themselves but derived exclusively from their juxtaposition” (ibid., 25). Instead of this Bazin favors a second approach which he characterizes through its “faith in reality” (ibid., 24). While writing about Murnau as an example for this approach he defines it as follows: “It adds nothing to the reality, it does not deform it, it forces it to reveal its structural depth, to bring out the preexisting relations […]” (ibid., 27). We already see here that this approach also deals with the essence of reality but in a completely other way then Eisenstein. Instead Bazin suggests that its possible to show the essence – to which he is here refering as “structural depth” and “preexisting relations” – by showing reality itself without adding anything.
It are Italian neorealist directors that for Bazin exemplify this approach in the most complete form and on which he develops his position of realism. “They never forget that the world is, quite simply, before it is something to be condemned” (Bazin 2005b, 21 – original emphasis). A prime example for this kind of film is for Bazin Rossellini’s Paisà (1946). “The unit of cinematic narrative in Paisà is not the ’shot‘, an abstract view of reality which is being analyzed, but the ‚fact’” (ibid., 37). This facts are not a means to an end but have a value on their own. That’s also why there is no need to explicitly connect or interpret them, instead its a characteristic of films like Paisà that they have “great holes” (ibid., 35). Bazin uses the following methaphor to elude this point: “The mind has to leap from one event to the other as one leaps from stone to stone in crossing a river” (ibid., 35). In doing so one might miss a stone or slip, but that lies in the essence of the stones. “Actually it is not of the essence of a stone to allow people to cross rivers without wetting their feet […]. Facts are facts, our imagination makes use of them, but they do not exist inherently for this purpose” (ibid., 35). Film then has to respect this essence of the facts and present them according to their nature. That in no way suggests that films like Paisà have no meaning or moral. It just has a different source there: “For Rossellini, facts take on a meaning, but not like a tool whose functioning has predetermined its form. The facts follow one another, and the mind is forced to observe their resemblance; and thus, by recalling one another, they end by meaning something which was inherent in each and which is, so to speak, the moral of the story – a moral the mind cannot fail to grasp since it was drawn from reality itself” (ibid., 36). According to Bazin it then is unnecessary and can only do harm to add something to this factual character. It wouldn’t help to bring out the essence of something but instead would obfuscate it. Films like Paisà or Le Ballon Rouge (1956) – to which the following quote refers to – therefore don’t “owe anything to montage” (Bazin 2005c, 45).
Bazin’s position in this regard can easily be misunderstood. Hence it is important to point out that he doesn’t think of “realist” films in the way of an objective documentary that – like a fly on the wall – is only observing and recording what’s happening. Instead he reminds us that it’s essential for film – as for any form of art – to select what it shows. “Every form of aesthetic must necessarily choose between what is worth preserving and what should be discarded, and what should not even be considered” (Bazin 2005b, 26). Yet what is important for Bazin is that the whole, the entity of what is shown is preserved and not broken apart. “[N]eorealism by definiton rejects analysis, whether political, moral, psychological, logical, or social, of the characters and their actions. It looks on reality as a whole, not incomprehensible, certainly, but inseparably one” (Bazin 2005d, 97). For Bazin only this way does justice to reality.
Different Approaches – Common Ground?
After introducing the different ideas that Eisenstein and Bazin hold of reality and essence this part will explore the question if – considering the different approaches that both favor – there is still common ground that can be found in both theories.
In this search for common ground it is important that one doesn’t miss the differences of the two approaches. What seems to separate the two conceptions most fundamentally is a difference that Bazin described as an a priori vs. and a posteriori approach. “[…] the neorealist film has a meaning, but it is a posteriori, to the extent that it permits our awareness to move from one fact to another, from one fragment of reality to the next, whereas in the classical artistic composition the meaning is established a priori: the house is already there in the brick” (Bazin 2005d, 99). Examples of Eisenstein’s montage in this sense are clear examples where the “house is already in the brick”, i.e. the scenes of a montage only makes sense in the whole setting. In the scene of Kerenski and the mechanic peacock which was mentioned above, the image of the peacock can’t stand for itself, it is meant to be a part of a montage. In other words, as the essence of the brick is to be part of the house the essence of this scene is not found in itself but only in the context of the intercutting with Kerenski.
As we’ve seen, Bazin follows this metaphor further when he contrasts the bricks of the house with rocks in a river. Their essence doesn’t lie in the fact that we can use them to cross the river, unless we use them to build a bridge out of them (ibid., 99). For Eisenstein quite contrary the scenes of a montage – although he rejects the brick metaphor – are like cells of an organism. “The shot is a montage cell” (Eisenstein 1977b, 37). In his view the function of montage is to bring these elements in a dialectical relationship of conflict. “By what, then, is montage characterized and, consequently, its cell – the shot? By collision. By the conflict of two pieces in opposition to each other. By conflict. By collison” (ibid., 37). Here Eisenstein openly admits that the characteristic role of the shot doesn’t lie in itself, but in the relationship to another shot.
Following this one could argue that Eisenstein’s usage of a slaughterhouse scene in his famous montage in Strike is instrumental, because it used solely to signify something else. It doesn’t stand for itself but its main function is to show us the meaning of another scene, namely the massacring of demonstrating workers. Le Sang des bêtes (1949) on the other hand could be seen as a film that tries to preserves the essence of a slaughterhouse.
From this point of view the gap between Eisenstein’s and Bazin’s position seems to be irreconcilable. That this is a too simplistic view is indicated by the high opinion that Bazin holds of Eisenstein and his work. Instead Bazin seems to sense that there is common ground between his ideas and Eisenstein’s. “Was it not from the outset their search for realism that characterized the Russian films of Eisenstein, Pudovin, and Dovjenko as revolutionary both in arts and politics, in contrast to the expressionist aestheticism of the German films and Hollywood’s mawkish star worship? Paisà, Sciuscà, and Roma Città Apperta, like Potemkin, mark a new stage in the long-standing opposition between realism and aestheticism on the screen” (Bazin 2005b, 16). Here Bazin puts Italian neorealism in the tradition of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), in fact he suggests that Italian neorealism provides us with “new solutions” (ibid., 16) for the same problem that Eisenstein dealt with. This common problem, I would argue, is to find a way how cinema can show us the essence of things.
We see that it should be undisputed that the approaches Eisenstein and Bazin suggest are different. For Eisenstein the best way to bring out the essence is montage, because it allows us to show the meaning of something by contrasting it with other shots. This is grounded – as was shown above – by a dialectic understanding of the world that makes such an approach necessary. Bazin on the other hand favors the long deep focus shot used in Orson Welles‘ Citizen Kane (1941) or the fragmentaric character of Rossellinis Paisà. But they share the common ground that the goal of each approach should be to show us the meaning, the essence of something.
Bazin seemed to have had more trust that the essence of reality reveals itself if film doesn’t give us an interpretation a priori. But for Eisenstein too the purpose of montage isn’t to force a special meaning that can’t be found in reality itself on the spectator. Instead the spectator plays an active role in Eisenstein’s conception: “In fact, every spectator, in correspondence with his individuality, and in his own way and out of his own experience […] creates an image in accordance with the representational guidance suggested by the author, leading him to understanding and experience of the author’s theme. This is the same image that was planned and created by the author, but this image is at the same time created also by the spectator himself” (Eisenstein 1977d, 33).
In a way one could therefore say both montage and long deep focus shot leave it to us to make something out of them. For example in Paisà when we follow a woman looking for her boyfriend, “leaving us to the task of being alone with her, of understanding her, and of sharing her suffering” (Bazin 2005b, 37). Of course there are example of montage where the meaning that Eisenstein wants to show us is obvious and easy to follow, especially in his first long film Strike³. But in Potemkin or October (1928), by making use of the different “methods of montage” (Eisenstein 1977e), the examples become more sophisticated and open for interpretation.
Both also share the notion that in the end film should show something “whole”. For Eisenstein this can be reached indirectly through montage: “The juxtaposition of these partial details in a given montage construction calls to life and forces into the light that general quality in which each detail has participated and which bins together all the details into a whole, namely, into that generalized image, wherein the creator, followed by the spectator, experiences the theme” (Eisenstein 1977d, 11 – original emphasis). The function of montage then is to “evoke in the consciousness and feelings of the spectator, reader, or auditor, that same initial general image which originally hovered before the creative artist” (ibid., 31). Bazin shares the goal of showing reality as a whole. But the way he proposes to reach this goal differs from Eisenstein’s. As was mentioned before he doesn’t deny that the film director must select what he shows in his films, that he “filters reality” (Bazin 2005d, 98 – original emphasis). “[B]ut the selection that does occur is neither logical nor is it psychological; it is ontological, in the sense that the image of reality it restores to us is still a whole – just as a black-and-white photograph is […] a true imprint of reality, a kind of luminous mold in which color simply does not figure. There is ontological identity between the object and its photographic image” (ibid., 98).
I would argue that Eisenstein – just as Bazin does – also aims at this ontological level with his montages. But what seems to divide them are different conceptions of ontology. Eisenstein in this regard can be seen as transcendental realist. The essence of things for him is hidden and must be discovered and exemplified by a dialectical method of montage. When he shows us in October a soldier that is shooting with a machinegun at a demonstration and – in a fine example of metric montage – intercuts the face of the soldier with a close-up of the firing gun, he uses this technique to point us to the essence of what’s happening: the coalition of man and machine, the ambiguity of who’s controlling whom, the tact in which both interact together. Bazin on the other hand believes that the essential quality has to be found in the empirical events themselves. His position therefore can be described as empirical realism. A good example for this approach can be found in De Sica’s film Umberto D (1952), where we see a girl that slowly wakes up in the morning and follow her all the way from bed to the kitchen where she starts preparing breakfast. The scene is quite long with only a few cuts showing us this daily routine in its continuity. For Bazin this continuity of time is an important feature of cinema that was introduced by Welles. “Orson Welles restored to cinematographic illusion a fundamental quality of reality – its continuity” (Bazin 2005b, 28). It is also this continuous flow of time that for Bazin is an essential feature of reality. Combined with long deep focus shots as used in Citizen Kane it is the core of Bazin’s concept of a posteriori. “It is no longer the editing that selects what we see, thus giving it an a priori significance, it is the mind of the spectator which is forced to discern […]” (ibid., 28).
Eisenstein on the other hand doesn’t seem to be interested too much in this dimension of time. When for example the sailors await the final attack in Battleship Potemkin the scene is heavily cut, showing us the single persons only for short periods of time. Instead of depicting this period of waiting, where time seems to be running slowly, through long and continuous shots Eisenstein decides to give us an overview what is going on on board. In other words we see not how the individual reacts but instead the collective, the ship as a whole. From this collective perspective the time period isn’t seen as a long and continuous stream but as a meaningful series of events, condensing the length of the waiting period.
I have tried to show that despite all the differences between Eisenstein and Bazin their theories have in common a fundamental similiarity: their attempt to answer the question how film can show the essence of reality. Both agree that this can’t be accomplished by simply showing reality as “authentic” as possible, as the usage of non-professional actors both in Eisenstein’s movies and in Italian neorealism could for example suggest. Instead they honor the fact that film is a form of art and therefore must select and decide which facets of reality to show. Both Eisenstein and Bazin also emphasize the point that the result of the image in the end should be a whole. While for Eisenstein this whole must be built by using montage and juxtaposition Bazin claims that the whole can’t be broken into pieces but that a fact of reality has to be valued as an end in itself.
It is this difference that seems to be the most serious between the theories of Eisenstein and Bazin. I have tried to explain it as a difference of the concept of ontology that both hold. While Eisenstein’s realism is transcendental and aims to find the essential quality of something beyond the empirical level Bazin’s position seems to be more an empirical realism, looking for the essence in real events and facts.
But after taking into account all the differences both Eisenstein and Bazin have in common that in their film theory they search for the essence of reality, “its metaphysical kernel” (Bazin 2003, 29).
Martin Bartenberger, 2012
1. Bazin here is writing about the film The Bullfight (1951) by Pierre Braunberger.
2. The quote is taken from Razumovsky’s Theory of Historical Materialism. I want to note that here I can’t deal with the question if this quote or Eisenstein gets the theory of Marx and Engels right. Instead I will here understand and analyze dialectic in the way Eisenstein does.
3. Again the scene with the slaughterhouse is notorious in this regard, but also his depiction of the “capitalists” or the usage of the lemon squeezer while workers are attacked by soldiers.
Bazin, André. 2003. “Death Every Afternoon” In Rites of Realism: Essays on Corporeal Cinema, ed. Ivone Margulies. Durham/London: Duke University Press. 27-31.
Bazin, André. 2005a. “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema” In What Is Cinema? Volume 1, André Bazin. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press. 23-40.
Bazin, André. 2005b. “An Aesthetic of Reality: Cinematic Realism and the Italian School of Liberation” In What Is Cinema? Volume 2, André Bazin. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press. 16-40.
Bazin, André. 2005c. “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage” In What Is Cinema? Volume 1, André Bazin. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press. 41-52.
Bazin, André. 2005d. “In Defense of Rossellini” In What Is Cinema? Volume 2, André Bazin. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press. 93-101.
Eisenstein, Sergei. 1977a. “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form” In Film Form, ed. Jay Leda. New York: Harcourt. 45-63.
Eisenstein, Sergei. 1977b. “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram” In Film Form, ed. Jay Leda. New York: Harcourt. 28-44.
Eisenstein, Sergei. 1977c. “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today” In Film Form, ed. Jay Leda. New York: Harcourt. 195-255.
Eisenstein, Sergei. 1977d. “Word and Image” In Film Sense, ed. Jay Leda. New York: Harcourt. 1-65.
Eisenstein, Sergei. 1977e. “Methods of Montage” In Film Form, ed. Jay Leda. New York: Harcourt. 72-83.