Lev Kuleshov: the man who taught Soviet film to change the world

The name of Lev Kuleshov is one of the more consequential in film history. This is not due primarily to his directorial talents – although these were plentiful, as evidenced by his 1924 classic The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, now streaming on Klassiki. The reason that this son of the Russian Empire and patriot of the Soviet Union features on Film History and Theory courses the world over is that he lends his name to the “Kuleshov Effect”: an early conception of the expressive potential of the medium that went on to inform the most famous Soviet directors and their many international disciples.

The coincidence of this formal revolution and the ideological revolution of October 1917 is key to understanding Kuleshov’s work. The revolution proclaimed a new historical world: this necessitated a change of purpose for cinema, increasingly harnessed (albeit haphazardly at first) to serve the urgent pragmatic needs of the regime: to communicate with a new mass audience. The formal preoccupations that so occupied avant-gardists like Kuleshov and his students Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin – the question of what film should look and feel life – conjoined with ideological preoccupations in this search for a new art, for for the nascent revolutionary world. For the medium to live up to its radical potential, it needed to divorce itself from pre-existing artistic traditions – no more adaptations from literature or theatre – and focus on reflecting the dynamic experience of modern, Soviet life.

Lev Kuleshov

Unlike his slightly younger charges, Kuleshov had been employed in the pre-revolutionary film industry, notably as a set designer for the great Yevgeni Bauer (Life for a Life on Klassiki). Now, though, he turned his back on the literary, bourgeois melodramas of his former bosses and set about examining with scientific rigour the elemental characteristics of this still-young medium. In a series of “workshops”, Kuleshov and his comrades asked themselves: what makes film special? What distinguishes it from theatre, or photography? The answer that they arrived at would prove foundational. 

Kuleshov was fascinated by the innovations of the great American pioneer D. W. Griffith, and in particular by his (at the time) bold use of editing to enrich his onscreen storytelling. Kuleshov recognised that Griffith’s cutting between panoramas, close-ups, action and reaction, was instrumental in creating an emotional response in the viewer. Editing, or the cut – rather than the composition of any given shot – was, he reasoned, key to mastering film. In order to get to the heart of the matter, he created a simple experiment in his workshops. Audiences were shown a still shot of the pensive face of a well-known actor, Mozhukhin. The shot then cut to one of a bowl of soup. Then, the same shot of Mozhukhin’s face, followed by a corpse. Then, Mozhukhin’s same face, followed by a young girl. The audience were then surveyed as to their reaction to the footage. They raved about Mozhukhin’s expressive capacity: how beautifully he captured a sense of forlorn hunger at his lost soup; how delicately he mourned for his fallen comrade; how tenderly he gazed upon the girl. Such versatility! But Mozhukhin’s face never changed. From this, Kuleshov deduced that the audience perceived a connection between any two shots that transformed their perception of those shots themselves. The Kuleshov Effect had been recorded for the first time.

A photographic reconstruction of Kuleshov’s original experiment

It is hard to overstate the importance of this revelation. Thanks to Kuleshov and his charges, film editing was emancipated; no longer merely an instrument of storytelling, it could now create radically new meaning out of the filmed material. The audience was understood to be an active participant in the cinematic experience, one that could be activated and manipulated to bold new ends. Non-diegetic material could be incorporated, new horizons opened up; what Kuleshov called “imaginary geography”. Among Kuleshov’s pupils, Eisenstein and Pudovkin would go on to spin out the implications of this theoretical principle in what became known as the Soviet ‘montage school’, in silent masterpieces like Battleship Potemkin and Storm Over Asia.

Kuleshov deduced that the audience perceived a connection between any two shots that transformed their perception of those shots themselves.

Kuleshov himself concluded that film art consists entirely in editing: “We must look for the organisational basis of cinema not within the confines of the filmed fragment, but in the way these fragments relate to one another.” The shot could have no meaning on its own. A film was “built” out of individual shots, which he likened to bricks. The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks shows this thinking put into dizzying practice. The speed and invention of Kuleshov’s cutting here outstrips even his American idols, conjuring up onscreen the dynamism and vitality of Soviet urban life. Kuleshov seems to tip his hat to his Yankee forebears as he goes whizzing by, since the film’s plot (threadbare though it is) concerns a naive, disoriented Ohio tourist bowled sideways by the energy of Soviet Moscow.

His own fame may have been eclipsed by that of Eisenstein or Vertov, and his own films may now rarely be screened outside of Russia, but Kuleshov was at the very heart of arguably the greatest artistic explosion in the young Soviet state. The critic Mikhail Yampolsky summed up his contribution to film’s expressive arsenal well: “Kuleshov’s experiments revealed that it was possible to fashion an artificial, artistic world out of disparate fragments, to build artificial men — to break the human form down into parts and then to bring these together again.”

Watch The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks now on Klassiki.