Aleksandr Nevskiy (Alexander Nevsky) is not central to Eisenstein’s theory of montage and is not considered to be one of his most important works, at least critically. Yet the film exhibits a powerful folkloric spirit in its single-minded, patriotic call to unity in resisting German invasion. Alexander Nevsky is widely celebrated for its astounding 30-minute “Battle on the Ice” sequence that influenced a generation of filmmakers in constructing historical battles. However, there is much else to recommend in Eisenstein’s film. Commissioned as a historical drama to raise patriotic consciousness in response to Germany’s increasing belligerence, it became a political talisman. Resurrecting Eisenstein’s flagging fortunes after the debacle of Bezhin lug (Bezhin Meadow, ) and the failure of Que Viva Mexico! it was not only his first completed film since 1929, but also the director’s first full foray into sound and the start of a productive collaboration with composer Sergei Prokofiev. The film was rushed into production to bolster national morale and released in November 1938 to public and critical acclaim at a time of the USSR’s greatest isolation from the European community in facing up to the rise of Nazism. When the Soviets signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in August 1939 the film was removed from circulation domestically and internationally, and then rushed back onto screens in 1941 after the German invasion.
The plot is remarkably simple. In 1242, a few years after the invasion by the Mongols, the German Teutonic Knights attack a weakened Russia from the West and decimate the city of Pskov with the assistance of various traitors. Nearby Novgorod is the last remaining free city in Russia and after some fierce debate the citizens decide to summon Prince Alexander to protect their city and free the nation. Alexander Nevsky, who had recently defeated the Swedes and is held in high esteem by the Mongols, agrees and forms a unity army of peasants to attack the Germans. The entire city of Novgorod gets behind the defenders by equipping the ragtag army and, women included, get set to go to war. After an initial scuffle, Alexander lures the Germans onto the melting ice of Lake Chudskoe where the majority of the heavily armored knights drown. Alexander marches victorious into Pskov dragging the captured traitors and German knights amidst songs and vibrant celebrations. He honours the fallen Russian soldiers, deals out popular justice to the traitors and the knights (swapping them for soap!), and oversees the merrymaking. The message of the film is uncomplicated: “Those who come to us in peace will be welcome. But those who come to us sword in hand will die by the sword! On that Russia stands and will stand forever!”
As a tightly controlled, commissioned piece, Alexander Nevsky does not stray into formalism and is in many ways constructed on Hollywood principles of dramatic action. There is a tough yet sensitive hero, a vicious inhuman enemy, and clear goals that are achieved through collective will. There is also a justification for revenge amidst some moments of comic relief and a romantic subplot that joins the main story in a happy ending providing a sense of communal unity through a shared emotional experience. Eisenstein creates a strong relationship between sound and image with Prokofiev’s score defining much of the film’s dynamics and the text of the songs providing the narration. The image is crisp, and the landscape broad, uncluttered and elemental. The lighting is high-key with bleached peasant huts, white cityscapes and broad expanses of sky marking an endless horizon with only the costume design providing detail. Largely employing a variation on continuity editing, the opening scenes are ponderous and there is little sense of dynamic montage, aside from the punctuation of the axial cuts, until the stunning and disorientating “Battle on the Ice” sequence. The construction and staging of this complex scene represented an enormous achievement in special effects.
It is impossible to view this film set in the thirteenth century outside of the context of the history of its production in the late 1930s. Alexander Nevsky is an allegory that projected present events and sensibilities onto the past in order to draw strength from Russian history. Propaganda in the Soviet Union was not considered an invective. The film was designed to mobilise and bring confidence to the worldwide struggle against fascism. Throughout the 1930s, relations between the USSR and Germany were in a constant state of flux. Germany’s rearmament, Hitler’s avowed anti-communism and the weakness of the European policy of appeasement were cause for enormous anxiety. Stalin’s increasing paranoia and the search for traitors resulted in The Great Terror of 1937. Socialist realism had become enshrined as the appropriate working method and style and was intended to produce “images that are made with the purpose of helping along a desirable reality” (1), having put an end to the artistic experimentation of the early years. Highlighting the direct connections between medieval times and the present, the film provided dramatic commentary about contemporary conditions and how to correct them.
Like other examples of socialist realism, Alexander Nevsky sets up the clearly unacceptable but earnestly expressed policy of appeasement, as well as the “reality” of German superiority, early on so that it can dramatically expose this proposition to be false throughout the rest of the film. After the sacking of Pskov, the townsfolk of Novgorod meet in the town square to hear a wounded knight’s story of the German attack. His passionate appeal to defend the sacred soil of Russia is ridiculed by the city’s lords who argue for appeasement and surrender (it becomes clear later that they are the traitors who have aided the German attacks). But colourful and reasoned oratory from peasants and seasoned warriors offer the correct solution. They demand that Alexander Nevsky be summoned to lead them into battle against the invaders. Resonant political themes of the 1930s were clearly pronounced and connected effortlessly with such folkloric elements as the essential unity of the peasants with the land and its protection, and the need for a strong leader to deliver the people from their fear and immanent destruction and courageously face the enemy who dares to invade Russia.
The film is a symphony of patriotism and, as David Bordwell notes, Eisenstein offered a work modeled on the folk epic in both structure and style (2). This thin allegorical veneer dismisses the easy assignation of propaganda and allows viewers to explore the film as a folk epic with its cast of legendary characters and established narrative structure. Essential differences are highlighted between the Russians and the Teutonic knights in much the same way that traditional folktales construct the distinctions between good and evil. But it is never that simple: unexpectedly the Germans are robed in white cloaks while the Russians appear in dark shades (emphasising their earthiness?). The knights are presented as invincible in their effortless conquest of Pskov through the employment of technological superiority, outlandish helmet decorations, merciless destruction and the cunning use of traitors. The scenes of the sacking of Pskov are astonishing in the efficiency of the shots, the carnage and realistic violence made more striking by the solemn editing. Pointedly, the graphic structure of infinite upright spears in a sea of ordered warriors is clearly borrowed from the crowd scenes in Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl, 1935). The costumes are unmistakably a perversion of Nazi and Christian iconography. Raising the stakes of the moral outrage are scenes of the murder of bound prisoners, and the sale of Russian women into slavery while their babies are snatched from their grasp and thrown into the fire by jeering German soldiers in a satanic ritual presided over by a ghoulish representative of the Roman Catholic Church.
Prince Alexander is the ultimate folk epic action hero – he is brave and strong, yet kind and wise. He works manually side-by-side with his people but is a proud Russian ready to attack any invaders. He leads from the front but listens to the peasants’ folk wisdom. While preparing for battle Alexander hears an old soldier’s tale about a fox who is chasing a hare buts gets caught between two birch trees. The hare solemnly asks the stuck fox, “Do you want me to deflower you?” The fox begs for mercy but the hare deflowers her anyway. Alexander adopts this animal husbandry tale of the weak turning the tables on the strong as his military strategy. After drawing in the knights he traps them and then spectacularly deflowers them on the ice. The battle sequence is astounding in its complexity and kinetic dimensions, although perhaps a little too one-sided to achieve full dramatic effect. The battle emphasises the physical power of the Russian soldiers who prefer axes and large poles to conventional weapons and where women are no less daring than the men. This seemingly simple period drama cleverly combines action and romance, a heroic quest, and socialist realism with a bloodthirsty and, yet, deeply emotional national folktale. It is a rousing yet sensitive patriotic symphony that has an enduring significance.
Aleksandr Nevskiy/Alexander Nevsky (1938 USSR 112 mins)
Prod Co: Mosfilm Dir: Sergei Eisenstein, Dmitri Vasilyev Scr: Sergei Eisenstein, Pyotr Pavlenko Phot: Eduard Tisse Ed: Sergei M. Eisenstein and Esfir Tobak [uncredited] Art Dir: Nikolai Solovyov, Sergei Eisenstein [uncredited] Mus: Sergei Prokofiev
Cast: Nikolai Cherkasov, Nikolai Okhlopkov, Andrei Abrikosov, Vera Ivashova, Aleksandra Danilova, Vladimir Yershov