Ėsfir’ Shub on Women in the Editing Room: “The Work of Montazhnitsy” (1927)

Alla Gadassik
Ėsfir’ Shub; Soviet Union; montage; editing; feminist film history; women’s cinema


In March of 1927, Ėsfir’ Shub finished a typed draft of a short article titled, succinctly and pointedly, “Монтажницы” (Montazhnitsy / Montagesses). “On this International Day of Women Workers,” Shub began her draft, “I wish to tell about the important living organism of the film factory and about its montage department, staffed entirely by montazhnitsy.” (Shub 1927a) The word montazhnitsa (“монтажница”, pluralised as “монтажницы”, or montazhnitsy ) employed by Shub was the ubiquitous gender-specific job title of a person supporting the film editing process — ranging from maintenance jobs (e.g. polishing and repairing reels) and technical jobs (e.g. the assembler and joiner) to more demanding roles as an editing assistant or negative cutter. In the early decades of Soviet cinema, this entire range of jobs appeared to be exclusively staffed by women, so the umbrella term for the position already pointed to a female worker. To my knowledge, no male version (montazhnik) appears only very rarely in primary documents referring to this role in film production during the post-revolutionary and interwar years. French cinema has an equivalent word — “monteuse” — yet I have chosen to translate “монтажница” as “montagess” in my own notes below, so as to mirror the English gender-typing of “actress.” A more faithful translation might be “montage girl,” echoing the historically feminised jobs of the film studio “script girl” and animation studio “ink-and-paint girl,” but the Russian term lacks the diminutive inflection. In my translation of Shub’s text itself, including its title, I’ve kept the transliterated Russian original.

Shub’s article was intended to coincide with International Women’s Day, known at the time in the Soviet Union as International Day of Women Workers. The holiday’s specific title commemorated the important role that women workers played in the 1917 February Revolution, which served as the breaking point of the Russian monarchy and a catalyst for the Civil War that followed. Before the revolution, and the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, Women’s Day was celebrated in Russia at the end of February. The 1917 celebratory demonstrations took the form of mass protests and labour strikes in St. Petersburg, many of them held by the women staffing the city’s factories while able-bodied men were fighting in the First World War. The civil unrest escalated and led to the abdication of Tsar Nikolai II, effectively destabilising the Russian Empire and setting the scene for the more famous October revolution later that year.

Not long before writing this article a decade later, Shub completed her first feature-length documentary devoted to the February Revolution, originally titled Fevral’ / February, but released as Padenie dinastii Romanovykh / The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927, USSR). The article was her own form of quiet protest in recognition of women’s labour. The reference to the holiday was eventually removed from the final draft, published under the revised title “Работа Монтажниц” (“Rabota Montazhnits” / “The Work of Montagesses”), which is the version translated below.1 Removed, also, was Shub’s emphatic reference to a montage department staffed “entirely” by women. Nevertheless, her text remains committed to underscoring the neglected contributions of women to Soviet film production, particularly editing.

Although the article is short and its style is prosaic, this is an unusual document that acknowledges the collective labour of film editing in early Soviet cinema — a cinema that gave rise to influential theories of montage aesthetics, yet had surprisingly little to say on record about the actual work of doing montage. “The Work of Montazhnitsy” was not included in the sole edited collection of Shub’s writings and has therefore remained in obscurity. However, beyond the article’s importance as a rare document, it also contains a few details that are noteworthy for what they reveal about the status of film editing as a technical or creative craft, as well as the gender politics at play in navigating the difference.

Shub repeatedly emphasises the technical proficiency and high “qualification” of the women working in the editing department. She returns to the same characteristics (skillful, accurate, specialised) again and again, beginning with descriptions of basic entry-level positions and ending with more demanding roles. If her points seem redundant and her prose repetitive, one must understand the role that technical skill played in establishing and maintaining gender boundaries in early film industries, not only in the USSR but also abroad. Women were actively recruited into manufacturing positions in early cinema, from jobs like hand-splicing reels to hand-painting celluloid. These lowest paid jobs were viewed as tedious, repetitive, and not creatively or technically demanding. The actual task of editing celluloid was placed alongside occupations like textile production and garment making, where the same work was replicated over and over according to a fully predetermined pattern. However, once a task was deemed to be more sophisticated than basic maintenance and assembly (demanding more technical know-how or a higher level of decision making), there was a likelihood that it would be assigned to male employees.

As Karen Ward Mahar writes in her book Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, early Hollywood studios hired women primarily for positions that were “assumed to be feminine skills: dexterity, neatness, and the ability to perform detailed, routine, fairly low-skilled tasks.” (Mahar 2006: 21) In the editing department, women would cut and join negatives according to points dictated by the editors, who were predominantly men. In the printing room women operated machines under the supervision of male superintendents. Film lab developers were typically men, but women polished or coloured the celluloid. The division of labour hinged on assessing and isolating tasks that required “dexterity but not skill,” which would become the female-typed jobs (ibid., 23-24).

Contemporary debates about systemic inequalities in media production jobs frequently repeat edicts to hire the most “qualified” candidate for a position regardless of their identity, or sheepish excuses from employers that not enough “qualified” diverse candidates applied. Shub’s profile of the Soviet montagess, read in comparison with divisions of editing labour in other national contexts, encourages us to interrogate the meaning of qualification itself. How is a particular position defined, and how do the described characteristics of the ideal candidate intersect with wider cultural and social assumptions, thus already establishing barriers to access? Shub’s repeated references to the technical expertise of the montagess insistently eliminate the “but” from the idea of the editing assistant as “dexterous but not skilled.” Instead, she emphasises how the single job-title refers to an entire spectrum of responsibilities and increasingly complex, exacting duties. Yes, the montagess is tireless and meticulous in her “ceaseless” (repeated three times) manual labour; but she is also adaptable, technically erudite, proficient in organisational and archival roles, and knowledgeable about the materiality of film. This expanded roster of qualities is still small, but it offers a minor clue as to why women may have occupied more roles (and higher positions) in Soviet film editing than their American counterparts.

The most noteworthy quality that Shub ascribes to the montagess is her visual memory. The article links visual memory to the material practice of film editing in two ways. First, this skill is developed during the specific practice of editing celluloid with “primitive equipment,” relying on the eyes to scan a filmstrip and glean its contents. Second, visual memory is expanded via the broader practice of closely reviewing and analytically sorting all incoming footage including, in some cases, from different parallel projects. The common Russian term for “visual memory,” (zritel’naia pamiat’), comes from the same root as the word for “spectator” (zritel’). In her most insightful move near the end of the article, Shub defines visual memory as something more than passive memorisation; she frames it as a foundation for expertise and discernment in film spectatorship. By attentively editing and re-editing a film at some remove from creative possessiveness (since it was denied to her), the montagess can be the most faithful and most critical spectator – her reception is both “immediate” and simultaneously “professional.”

Shub’s remarks on this quality should be considered in light of film criticism of the time. Sergei Ėizenshtein – Shub’s friend, peer, and pioneer of montage theory and form – placed great importance on visual memory (including the more contested photographic and eidetic memory) in fostering a cinematic imagination. Having an expanded capacity for noticing and recalling visual details from disparate sources, even unrelated scenes and time periods, endowed an artist with the ability to forge new and unexpected juxtapositions. This was an essential condition for editing in a generative, creative way. Shub does not go so far as to ascribe any creative agency to the montagess, but I believe she emphasises visual memory as a way to craft her own origin-story as a director who began as a montagess and continued to work primarily through montage.

When Padenie dinastii Romanovykh was released, Shub struggled to receive authorial credit and requisite compensation for her directorial work. The film’s damning portrait of tsarist Russia on the brink of collapse, often described as a “compilation documentary,” was comprised primarily from found archival and newsreel footage. Shub diligently tracked and reviewed much of the footage herself, assembling selections into a cohesive film with writing assistance from Mark Tseitlin and editing assistance from at least one montagess (Tat’iana Kuvshinchikova, named in the article with a misprinted first initial and corrected in this translation; also corrected is the last name of Tat’iana Levington). Shub’s transformative use of footage in Padenie dinastii Romanovykh was more significant than the work she performed as a re-editor of foreign imports, which was not considered to be a directorial role. However, neither did it fit neatly into the established picture of a director as someone staging and managing a film set. The opening titles for Padenie dinastii Romanovykh acknowledged her role via the phrase “work of Ėsfir’ Shub.” She could not get directorial credit until colleagues intervened on her behalf.

Under these circumstances, I find it interesting that Shub did not choose to write an article advocating primarily for herself (for example, by announcing the invention of a new non-fiction film genre and proclaiming herself its leader). Instead, in “The Work of Montazhnitsy” she chooses to demonstrate the camaraderie she ascribes to the women of the montage department by highlighting the collective over the individual. Nevertheless, it is clear that in profiling these women, with whom she comes “in close contact,” Shub is simultaneously distancing herself from the collective, trying to carve out her unique place as rezhisser-montazher (“director-editor”) in the challenging intersection between editing as a creative practice and editing as a technical craft.


Fig. 1: Left: archival footage of women working in a Russian factory, as it appears in Ėsfir’ Shub’s Padenie dinastii Romanovykh . Right: Ėsfir’ Shub seated behind Tat’iana Kuvshinchikova in the editing room of the 3rd factory of Goskino. Courtesy of Muzei Kino.


“The Work of Montazhnitsy” by Ėsfir’ Shub / “Работа Монтажниц”

I wish to tell about the important living organism of the film factory, about the montage department, and chiefly about the montazhnitsa.

In my line of work I’ve come into close contact with the montazhnitsa of rentals, the montazhnitsa serving the director, and the montazhnitsa of negatives, whose work is highly specialised. The labour of a montazhnitsa and her role in the production process is not widely known, and yet it is a large department with a well-organised workforce.

What does a montazhnitsa of rentals do? Come, enter the montage room at Sovkino. Right now this is a large brightly lit room furnished with editing tables, though still primitively equipped. Film winders spin ceaselessly. Despite good ventilation, the air is filled with the sweet, syrupy scent of acetate and acetone. Her head bowed, arms ceaselessly moving, eyes intensely focused on the film strip, the montazhnitsa is at work.

What is she doing? The less experienced one reviews films after they are shown on screen — she patches the tears; checks the perforations; carefully and deftly trims down edges broken by the machine; curves the trimmed ends to prevent further damage, doing so skillfully, so as not to cause jitter on screen; removes frames already destroyed by the projector; cleans the celluloid and neatly rolls it back onto reels. And thus ceaselessly, reel after reel for the entire workday.

Montazhnitsy who serve editing directors work separately. Tatiana Levington and I were probably the first people to hold the job of re-editing foreign films. Western and American films had to be ideologically corrected, which meant changing the plot and the editing structure of the film, as well as writing new intertitles. The work was done using just one print, which was then passed to the montazhnitsa, who would use this sample to accurately rework the negatives of all other copies. This demanded from the montazhnitsa a perfect knowledge of the positive print, the ability to accurately determine the action of each shot (and frame) in isolation, and visual memory.

Over the course of three years I re-edited roughly 300 pictures. There were some months when I suddenly had to prepare 10-15 pictures for release, each one in several copies. There were pictures that required very complicated re-editing. The work took place in a small, cramped, airless rentals office at the Goskino studio on Bol’shaia Dimitrovka.2 During all those years my assistant montazhnitsa Prokhorova never once made a mistake; she worked in a highly organised manner, using a carefully planned system. I must admit to picking up many of my production skills during this period. In 1925 I transitioned to directing the editing of Soviet-made pictures, and since 1927 to independent work in non-played film.

This is where the montazhnitsa becomes absolutely indispensable in one of the most crucial moments of the director’s work – the editing of the film. The montazhnitsa prepares all material for the picture according to the script, establishing its primary subjects in roughly the following order: wide shots, medium shots, close-ups and establishing shots of each scene, with all takes following in succession. All material is then reviewed by the director or the director-editor together with the montazhnitsa. She removes all the rejected takes. She then lays out all the remaining material for editing, according to a particular system that is highly personal to every director-editor. Following instructions by the director or director-editor, she groups certain sections of film, strips away unnecessary frames, and continues her very technical and very painstaking work alongside the director or director-editor until the conclusion of the entire editing process.

During my own work as author on the pictures “Fall of the Romanov Dynasty” and “The Great Road,” my assistant T. Kuvshinchikova helped me enormously. The two of us spent 7-8 months reviewing roughly a thousand positive and negative prints; following my instructions, she selected fragments, systematised them thematically, helped me file all material according to my classification system, which is based on primary thematic montage attributes, and did all the very technical and very demanding work with the aged celluloid over the course of editing these films.

Now, onto the last and most important division of the montage department, the department of negatives. The montazhnitsa of negatives is a most highly qualified employee. She uses the director’s positive print to assemble and edit the film’s negative cut, as well as compile a montage list. A complete knowledge of all the negatives, an immense visual memory, a fully rationalised system based on years of professionally acquired skills— these qualities distinguish montazhnitsy of negatives, who are responsible for an accurate assembly of negatives based on the director’s control print, as well as for all subsequent copies of the film. Nowhere, not in any other department at the film-factory, would you find the same organisation and planning as in the department of negative editing. Eyes and scissors work with great intensity, since we still have no devices for reviewing negatives, nor machines for splicing. Industrious organisation, sharpness of vision, formidable visual memory, an agility and quickness of the hands — these qualities distinguish montazhnitsy, who perform a major, important, scarcely noticed and little-recognised part in the making of a picture.

Yet montazhnitsy are not just distinguished by the high industrious quality of their specialised labour. They are all, with rare exceptions, highly discerning about the quality of the film as a whole. In the screening room, when montazhnitsy of negatives review the director’s control cut before starting the assembly of negatives, their evaluation of a picture is almost always unerring. Their reception of a picture is immediate and at the same time professional. I would even say the following: if the negative cutters like a picture, then it is undoubtedly well-made.

One more thing about montazhnitsy. This collective of women workers delights us with its political harmony, social activism, and a sense of absolute camaraderie toward one another.

(Translated by Alla Gadassik)


Alla Gadassik

Emily Carr University of Art + Design



Alla Gadassik is Assistant Professor of Media History and Theory at Emily Carr University of Art + Design (Vancouver). Her research bridges the disciplines of cinema studies, history of technology, and genealogies of media practice. Particular areas of interest include the history of cinematography, film editing, and animation methods, as they relate to different disciplines interested in analysing and synthesising movement. She holds a PhD from Northwestern University (Chicago) and an MA from York University (Toronto). Her most recent publications at this time include: the role of motion analysis in studio animation; combinatory and readymade animation techniques in experimental animation; postwar independent animation in North America; and the architecture of animation studios. A longer chapter on the work of Ėsfir’ Shub and the figure of the montagess, which is introduced here, is forthcoming in A Companion to Documentary Film History (Wiley-Blackwell). Dr. Gadassik is currently working on a book project that explores the relationship between bodily gestures and filmmaking methods.


Mahar, Karen Ward. 2006. Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood. Baltimore.

Shub, Ėsfir’. 1927a. “Montazhnitsy”. Typed draft with handwritten corrections, RGALI, f. 3035, op. 1, ed. 44.

Shub, Ėsfir’. 1927b. “Rabota Montazhnits.” Photocopy of published article from a 1928 issue of Sovetskii Ekran. RGALI, f. 3035, op. 1, ed. 44.


Shub, Ėsfir’. 1927. Padenie dinastii Romanovykh / The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty.

Suggested Citation

Gadassik, Alla. 2018. “Ėsfir’ Shub on Women in the Editing Room: “The Work of Montazhnitsy” (1927). Women at the Editing Table: Revising Soviet Film History of the 1920s and 1930s (ed. by Adelheid Heftberger and Karen Pearlman). Special Issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 6.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2018.0006.125

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

Copyright: The text of this article has been published under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ This license does not apply to the media referenced in the article, which are subject to the individual rights owner's terms.