Language and Cinema: Film Language in Sabotage
This paper comes out of my longstanding interest in the process of adapting literary texts
to film, and I have been particularly intrigued in the question posed by the film theorist
Dudley Andrew: “how is it possible to transform the signifiers of one material (verbal) to
signifiers of another material (images and sounds)?”1 There have been a number of
attempts to answer this question throughout the short history of cinema, most of them
starting from the assumption that film has its own language, which can be defined and
analysed in the same ways as spoken and written language.
The first systematic attempt to define the language of film was Sergei Eisenstein’s theory
of montage which is concerned with the way in which the individual shots of a film are
combined into larger units – first the scene, then the sequence, finally the complete film.
The idea, derived initially from the films of D .W .Griffith in the early years of the
century, was developed and refined by the Russian filmmakers of the 1920s, particularly
Eisenstein. He poured scorn on the idea that shots should be combined as though they
were links in a chain or mere building blocks. True montage, he declared, did not depend
on the accretion of shots, but on the collision or conflict between them.2
In his theoretical essays Eisenstein outlines a number of processes by which the
filmmaker can achieve such a collision or conflict. By far the most important is “montage
by attraction,” which is the one most commonly associated with early Russian cinema.
Montage by attraction works through metaphor or metonymy in such a way that the
meaning of one image is not only reinforced by its juxtaposition with another, it derives
from it. One of the most celebrated examples of this is the Odessa steps scene in
Eisenstein’s 1925 film, Potemkin – a scene which is familiar to most people, even if they
have not seen the film itself. Shots.