Lev Kuleshov is not well-known outside of film historian circles and most of his films have been lost, but he nonetheless was an important contributor to cinema as a filmmaker, a theorist, and as the teacher of Eisenstein and Pudovkin. Perhaps his greatest impact was in demonstrating the possibilities inherent in the montage, seeing it not only as a means to rapidly advance a narrative, but also as an important way in which to convey to the audience an even more powerful way of enhancing human expressiveness. Editing, therefore, was a crucial part of Kuleshov's filmmaking process, and he spent much time experimenting. His most famous experiment resulted in the "Kuleshov effect." To produce it he filmed the expressionless face of noted actor Ivan Mozzhukhin and juxtaposed it upon clips of archival footage containing a wide variety of objects. Though the actor's face remained the same, the feeling evoked by this montage was amazingly moving and each scene had a different meaning.
Born in Tambov, Russia, Kuleshov attended the collegiate School of Art, Architecture, and Sculpture in Moscow as a teen. Afterward he worked as an illustrator for a fashion magazine, and by the time he was 17 he had begun working as a set designer and occasionally acting in Russian films. Kuleshov made his directorial bow at 18 with the melodramatic detective yarn The Project of Engineer Prite. With images that evoked early German expressionism and a few radical techniques, it was considered among Russia's most sophisticated early films. Around that time, his first film theories began to be published. He also spent time making documentaries of the revolution such as On the Red Front (1920). Kuleshov had a particular love of American filmmakers such as Mack Sennett and D.W. Griffith, especially admiring their use of the crosscut in editing. It is their work that led him to devise his montage theory, something he passed on to such Soviet greats as Pudovkin and Eisenstein. Later they would receive much of the credit for developing the montage, but in interviews they never forgot to acknowledge the lessons they learned from their teacher Kuleshov at the First National Film School in Moscow, an institution Kuleshov helped found in 1919, becoming an instructor there in 1920. That year he married one of his students, Alexandra Khokhlova, who went on to collaborate and star in many of Kuleshov's films.
During the early '20s there was a shortage of raw film stock and Kuleshov had to improvise in class. To give his pupils experience, he devised a workshop to present five stage shows that demonstrated and simulated different cinematic styles. In 1924, new film stock finally came to the Soviet Union and the students got their chance to work on a real movie. The result was Kuleshov's American-inspired comedy The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks. This film was also aimed at American audiences in the hopes of helping them understand Soviet political ideology, and it starred a young Pudovkin as a Russian con artist bent on scamming a naïve American visitor.
His next film, Death Ray, was quite popular with Soviet viewers. Unfortunately, the film met with government disapproval for not containing enough propaganda. To punish him, they took most of his budget and relieved him of his stock company. Despite these setbacks (not including the fact the Pudovkin nearly died when a stunt involving a three-story building went awry), Kuleshov's sci-fi actioner, like the comedy before it, was quite popular with Soviet viewers. But his government problems continued with his next film, By the Law, a taut psycho-drama based on a Jack London story. Once again, officials considered the film lacking in propagandistic messages. It started a spiral for Kuleshov that resulted in his leaving filmmaking in favor of becoming a full-time theorist by 1933. One of his most important books remains Fundamentals of Film Direction (1941).
During WWII, he was again allowed to make films. Kuleshov became the head of the Moscow Film Institute in 1944, but by the '50s had become a forgotten figure in Soviet Cinema. In 1960, Jay Leyda (founder of the film journal Kino) rediscovered Kuleshov and helped launch a revival of his films in Russia and Europe. By the mid-'60s, Kuleshov was allowed to visit the West and to participate on film festival juries and to lecture during showings of his films.