Stanley Kubrick was one of those rare filmmakers whose cinema never really resembled the works of his contemporaries. Furthermore, they were original interpretations of his influences and were so unique that they have never been successfully replicated by his imitators. Despite the absence of formal education in film studies, Kubrick amassed an enviable knowledge of film history and the technicalities of cinema.
While embarking on his directorial journey, Kubrick encountered the works of several masters such as Elia Kazan and Max Ophüls whose films would remain embedded in his mind for the rest of his life. In a later interview, he said: “There are very few directors, about whom you’d say you automatically have to see everything they do. I’d put Fellini, Bergman and David Lean at the head of my first list, and Truffaut at the head of the next level”.
One of those cinema pioneers whose works he saw in his younger ears was Soviet theorist and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, known primarily for his visually innovative silent masterpieces such as Battleship Potemkin and his extensive writings on montage theory. Both his cinematic and literary legacy is taught in film schools to this day but Kubrick did not really care for it.
He claimed that Eisenstein’s writings were useless to him because he never really understood them but another Soviet filmmaker came to his rescue: Vsevolod Pudovkin. Kubrick said that he would recommend Pudovkin’s book to any student of cinema: “The most instructive book on film aesthetics I came across was Pudovkin’s Film Technique, which simply explained that editing was the aspect of film art form which was completely unique, and which separated it from all other art forms.”
In the same interview, Kubrick was asked about his opinions of Eisenstein which he claimed were mixed. “Eisenstein’s greatest achievement is the beautiful visual composition of his shots, and his editing,” Kubrick admitted. “But as far as content is concerned, his films are silly, his actors are wooden and operatic.”
Kubrick would then go on to criticise the Soviet pioneer’s style, claiming: “I sometimes suspect that Eisenstein’s acting style derives from his desire to keep the actors framed within his compositions for as long as possible; they move very slowly, as if underwater.” Detailing further, Kubrick compared Eisenstein’s work to Stanislavski’s innovations, insisting that people should engage in comparative studies to understand a director’s style in greater depth.
While pointing out the difference between Eisenstein’s cinema and that of one of his favourite filmmakers Charlie Chaplin, Kubrick elaborated: “Eisenstein is all form and no content, whereas Chaplin is content and no form. Of course, a director’s style is partly the result of the manner in which he imposes his mind on the semi-controllable conditions that exist on any given day — the responsiveness and talent of actors, the realism of the set, time factors, even weather.”