Alexander Nevsky (1938)

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

Eisenstein offers one of the great battle scenes in an epic that abandons his earlier style

Director: Sergei Eisenstein

Cast: Nikolay Cherkasov (Alexander Nevsky), Nikolay Okhlopkov (Vasili), Andrei Abrikosov (Gavrilo), Dmitry Orlov (Ignat), Vasili Novikov (Pavsha), Nikolai Arsky (Domash), Valentina Ivashova (Olga), Aleksandra Danilova (Vasilisa), Vladimir Yershov (Hermann von Balk), Sergei Blinnikov (Tverdilo)

And we think directors are under pressure in modern Hollywood. Eisenstein hadn’t made a film in ten years after an ill-fated tour in America, that largely left him under suspicion back home in the USSR. He’s patented montage directing style had been denounced as ideologically unsound. His last film had ended in over-budget disaster, in the aftermath of which the head of Mosfilms had been arrested, tried and executed for treason. Eisenstein was in the last chance saloon and told he could make one film. Imagine having Stalin breathing down your neck.

He picked, from a bundle of possible projects, Alexander Nevsky. A medieval Russian hero, Alexander Nevsky led Russia to historic military victories over the Germans and the Swedes. (He also had the freedom of history knowing almost nothing about Alexander beyond that). Alexander Nevsky would zero in on his victory over the invading Teutonic knights in the “Battle of the Ice” and present Nevsky (Nikolay Cherkasov) as a Russian Henry V, a legend who knew only victory, leading a unified Russia against a barbaric and cruel (German) foe. What better subject when Hitler was on the door?

Eisenstein was given a team of Stalinists to work with (to ensure he never strayed into his “formalist” style) as well as trusted cinematographer Eduard Tisse and legendary Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev. The film would essentially be the build-up to the central battle, a propagandist celebration of the strength and unity of the Russian spirit against wicked invaders. (It’s easy to forget that Eisenstein was one of the greatest propagandaists ever.) Nevsky – seven-foot, shot often from below so he towered over the frame and played by Stalin’s favourite actor, the charismatic Nikolay Cherkasov – would be a clear stand-in for the USSR’s leader.

Alexander Nevsky is strikingly different from Eisenstein’s earlier films. Obeying strict instructions, it is shot in a more formal, almost operatic, style with longer takes and a greater dependency on camera set-ups than Potemkin or October’s use of editing and montage. This translates into the battle that makes vivid use of speed, motion and immediacy in front of a camera, with carefully timed-cuts rather than fast-editing ala Potemkin. It doesn’t prevent this being one of the most influential battles ever placed on screen. It serves as a clear structural inspiration for Olivier’s Henry V (right down to Nevsky and the knight’s leader taking part in a mano-a-mano fight in the middle of the battle) and its DNA runs through countless films that followed, right up to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

This is an all-out brawl, a mass of bodies and weapons piling into each other with the camera (and the viewer) in the middle. The soundtrack is drowned out in a barrage of clashing swords, and we frequently see our Russian heroes framed centrally and slightly from below in mid-shot, hewing away on all sides with swords, axes and spears. At times Eisenstein employs faster film – particularly for the movement of troops – but it’s striking how clear and lack in impressionism the editing is. There are no cuts to suggestive details or the sort of flexing hands on straining horse’s reins you might expect from his other work. Instead, narrative clarity and masculine patriotism is to the fore.

None of this stops the battle from being compelling. A furious back and forth on the ice which culminates (inevitably) in the ice breaking and many German foes sinking to the bottom of the river in their heavy armour. Eisenstein, the master propagandist, makes no attempt to humanise the Germans. The Teutonic knights are nearly to a man, steel-bucket-headed stormtroopers, impersonal robots who cruelly follow any orders. At the sack of Pskov, they toss children and babies into bonfires without a backward glance and think nothing of slaughtering the helpless. Their leader is an arrogant sadist, who faces capture with a whimper. He serves alongside hypocritical churchmen who bless the slaughter of innocents and conspire with turncoat Russian monks to subvert Novograd.

On the flip side, the Russians are united in nobility and determination. They are led from the front by Nevsky who places weapons in the hands of the peasants and motivates all around him with his wisdom, humility and courage. Cherkasov is hugely charismatic as this idealised leader – even if little is called of him as an actor other than inspired speeches and standing hands-on-hips in manly determination. He forms a bond with a brave-but-Falstaffian blacksmith (Dmitry Orlov) standing in for the ordinary Russians, who jokes about but (unlike Falstaff) fights like a tiger.

As do all the Russians. All disagreements are put to one side. Two nobles feuding over their love for the same woman form a bond of brotherly mutual respect on the battlefield. The bereaved daughter of a Pskov noble, straps on chainmail and fights in the frontline. Peasant and noble hold the line together. The most despised character is Russian traitor Tverdilo (a snivelling Sergei Blinnikov) who betrays Pskov, wheedles for advantage and (literally) stabs people in the back.

The battle – and the rest of the action – plays out to a stunning score from Prokofiev. At turns martial, terrifying, tension-filled and triumphant, Eisenstein cut portions of the film to directly match Prokofiev’s rhythms. He’s equally well-served by Tisse, who shoots the film with a mix of epic stateliness and visceral immediacy. Interestingly it’s in the editing that the film looks most primitive today. At one point in the battle the Germans move from right-to-left charge to left-to-right (a strangely disconcerting switch) while the clash between Nevsky and the Teutonic leader is disjointedly cut with obvious, jarring, jumps.

But then Eisenstein didn’t want to be accused to succumbing to this formalist style. Stalin was showed the film and loved it. Allegedly apart from one reel which was promptly utterly destroyed (or it was destroyed before he saw it, his acolytes anticipating his dislike – the story varies). The film was a huge hit – until Stalin signed a pact with Germany in 1939, at which point it was banned. When the Germans broke the pact in 1941, it was back with a vengeance, a stirring example to all Russians of the glory of fighting back against the aggressor, with it’s “don’t tread on me” message (which Eisenstein throws up in text on the screen) a rallying cry in a new patriotic war.

There isn’t much to Alexander Nevsky outside of the battle – it’s all build-up, battle and then tiring up of loose ends. There isn’t much in the way of characters – never a major interest to Eisenstein. But he did creep some things under the wire, not least an effecting end-of-battle sequence that sees the dead and dying Russians on the field whisper or call out the names of their loved ones quietly before they expire. But in a film as triumphant as this one about the indomitable might of the Russian people, Stalin could let that slide. Alexander Nevsky might be a simpler, less striking film than Eisenstein’s earlier work – but it’s still an influential piece of cinema.

Watch Alexander Nevsky here (why this video has a full colour image fronting it I have no idea…)

Further reading

As a quick note… A new feature I’m trying out here. Probably more for classic films than recent releases.

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