“Alexander Nevsky” - Sergei Eisenstein and Dmitriy Vasilev (1938)

Film directing luminary Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) was, at least among the international critical community, a superstar from the outset of his career in Russia, when at the age of twenty-seven he made his classic silent film The Battleship Potemkin (1925). In fact to this day, his reputation, rests primarily on that film and its immediate successor, October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1927).  But his most successful film with the wider public was his first sound film, Alexander Nevsky (1938).  This latter film had interesting cinematic features that contrasted with his earlier work and shed light on Eisenstein’s complex aesthetics.

Eisenstein’s eminence rests not only on his film-directing talents but also on some other factors.  In those early days of the 1920s, Marxism and communism were fascinations of those on the political left, and Eisenstein’s films championing these causes attracted those in the critical and academic community who were sympathetic to such ideas.  In addition, film was a relatively new form of expression in those days, and Eisenstein’s theoretical writings on the subject attracted its own following.  In particular, Eisenstein promoted the notion of film’s unique element of montage, which was primarily concerned with the composition and juxtaposition of images over the temporal dimension.  Following on from the work of his colleague Lev Kuleshov, Eisenstein was interested in formulating a formal grammar of montage, and he was particularly interested not so much in the smooth transition between successive film images, but in the idea of how successive images could “collide” with each other [1,2].  In general, Eisenstein’s published articles on film, which were later collected, translated into English, and published in The Film Sense (1942) [3] and Film Form (1949) [4], revealed a man who was focused on a scientific and materialistic understanding of reality.  Film was simply a new and powerful tool of expression that could be employed for socially useful purposes. But I would say that Eisenstein’s subjective passions were still lurking in his aesthetic subconscious.

With the advent of sound in film, Eisenstein was particularly interested in learning how he could incorporate the sound medium into his montage theories of “collision” [5].  He accepted an invitation to come to the United States, where sound technology was most advanced, to participate in some sound film projects on offer from Paramount Pictures.  Although he entered into several projects, Eisenstein couldn’t make a go with his American producers and collaborators, and all his efforts in America, including a lengthy production endeavor in Mexico supported by famed author Upton Sinclair, came to nothing.  When he returned to Russia, Eisenstein was assigned to make a film there, Bezhin Meadow, but that, too, was a project that got bogged down in production difficulties and was ultimately cancelled.  It may have been the case that Eisenstein, once he became famous, was given too much artistic latitude to explore his theories and could not now bring his productions to closure under these circumstances.  The tolerance in Russia under Stalin for such missteps was of course much less than in the American environment, and this presented an immanent danger.  Fortunately for Eisenstein, the blame for the failure of Bezhin Meadow was ultimately pinned on someone else, the producer Boris Shumyatsky, who was then arrested, convicted of treason, and executed.

Finally Eisenstein was given another chance to direct, which resulted Alexander Nevsky.  This time, though, in order to curb Eisenstein’s artistic wanderings, he was assigned a co-director, Dmitriy Vasilev, who was instructed to maintain a tight shooting schedule.  The film was completed on time and was well-received in both Russia and the West.  Interestingly, prior to the film’s release, an early version was shown to Stalin, but with a reel missing.  Since Stalin approved what he saw, the completed film was released by the producers without that missing reel [6].

When we watch Alexander Nevsky today, we don’t see so much a tightly edited montage collision of opposing feelings and ideas. Instead we see a fascinating presentation of expressionistic imagery that relies less on temporal composition and more on the almost dreamlike emotional landscape evoked.  I would suggest that this expressionistic mode was always an important part of Eisenstein’s aesthetics, even if it was not so much articulated in his essays.  In any case Eisenstein’s expressionism in his later films, which also include Ivan The Terrible, Part I (1944) and Ivan The Terrible, Part II (1945), may seem overblown to some viewers today, and critical reactions to these films vary widely [6,7,8,9].

The story of Alexander Nevsky concerns 13th century Russian military leader Prince Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky, who turned back an invasion attempt by the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire in 1242.  Since the Teutonic Knights were primarily a German order, the entire scenario is clearly depicted as a metaphor for the then threatened German Nazi invasion of Russia, which did in fact take place a few years after the film’s release.

Overall, the film has very much a pro-war message. In fact some critics have even said in this regard that this is Eisenstein’s most propagandist film [6].  Its pro-war message is part of an essentially “blood and soil” theme that underlies the entire film [10].  “Blood and soil” had been primarily associated with and fully exploited in Germany, and it emphasizes allegiance to racial origins and possessive claims to native lands.  But here we see it transformed perfectly into a Russian context. 

To convey the idea that war is a noble act of heroism, Eisenstein and his cinematographer Eduard Tisse constantly employed low-angle shots to look up to their Russian heroes.  This effect is accentuated by the tall stature of the title-role actor Nikolai Cherkasov, who was 6' 6" (1.98m) tall [11].  The film also features Russian patriotic anthems along with a score composed by Sergei Prokofiev.  It is said that Prokofiev worked closely with Eisenstein in connection with the music, sometimes composing musical elements that fit Eisenstein’s shooting script, and in other places the film was cut to synchronize with Prokofiev’s music [6].  Despite this close cooperation, though, I don’t think the music goes well with the images, particularly in connection with the battle scenes.  In addition, I also found it surprising, given Eisenstein’s fascination with the montage possibilities of sound, that the sound effects in the film are weak and add almost nothing to the presentation.

The film narrative is relatively simple, with everything leading toward the famous “Battle on Ice” between Nevsky’s forces and the Teutonic Knights.  There are two threads of focalization – one surrounding the struggle between Nevsky and his foes and the other concerning the friendly romantic competition between two of Nevsky’s lieutenants over a beautiful Russian maiden.  But even this second narrative thread is adamantly pro-war.

1.  The Background Situation
The opening section provides background information about Alexander and his situation. The Rus’ domain, which was a core area of medieval Russia, had recently been invaded from the east by the Mongolian Golden Horde (later known as the Tatars), to whom the Rus’ people were compelled to pay tribute.  But at least their sovereignty was still intact.  Then there was another threat, this time from Sweden.  However, the young Alexander Yaroslavich had successfully defended the key city of Novgorod from an attack by the Swedish army near the Neva river, for which victory he had earned the title of “Nevsky”.  Afterwards, competitive pressure from the aristocratic boyar merchants had compelled Nevsky to leave Novgorod.  But now, at the beginning of this film, the city of Novgorod is again imperiled, this time by the invading German Teutonic Knights from the west.  The desperate Lord Novgorod is finally forced to summon Nevsky back to the city to lead their defense.

At the same time, two leading Novgorod warriors and comrades, Vasili Buslaev (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo Oleksich (Andrei Abrikosov) are competitively eyeing a beautiful young woman Olga Danilovna (Vera Ivashova).

Meanwhile the German Teutons sack the nearby city of Pskov, throwing women and children into bonfires and hanging one of the city’s defenders, the daughter of whom, Vasilisa (Aleksandra Danilova), looks on in horror.

2.  The Call to War
The second section of the film is a strident summoning to go to war.  Nevsky knows that to defeat the Germans he will have to recruit an army of peasants, and the people joyfully volunteer to fight.  Even Vasilisa, who has made it to Novgorod, volunteers to become a warrior in true blood-and-soil feminist tradition.

The city’s craftspeople all devote themselves to making weapons.  As one craftsman Ignat (Dmitri Orlov) tells Vasilisa when giving her a sword, “even a flea cannot be killed without a tool.”  Olga tells Vasili and Gavrilo that she will marry the one who shows the most valor in battle.  It’s all about killing now.

The Germans are shown to be particularly demonic, and even their praying to God looks like a collective act of wicked sorcery.  In fact the portrayal here invokes notions of a religious war, as the Orthodox Russians are confronted by a Roman Catholic hegemony bent on mass annihilation [12]. Eisenstein always shows the German army in an eerily inhuman white color (except for their satanically black-clad bishop), while the Russians army is in earthy gray. 

Before the impending battle, Nevsky overhears Ignat tell a ribald joke, and from this he gets the inspiration of employing a pincer strategy much like the one that Hannibal employed against the Romans at the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C.

3.  The Battle on Ice
The battle takes place on a frozen lake Chudskoye, and it consumes the next thirty minutes of screen time.  Much of the footage shows endless hand-to-hand fighting and swordplay, with Vasili and Ignat, in particular, joyously reveling in the slaughter, while Prokofiev’s loud carnival music plays. 
To these warriors, the whole thing is like a sporting event.

Although the Germans are better armed, Nevsky’s pincer attack works, and the tide of the battle eventually shifts in favor of the Russians.  Then the ice underfoot starts to crack under the weight of the heavier German armor, which engulfs much of the German attack force.

4.  The Celebration
After the German army is routed, the scene shifts back to Novgorod, where the townspeople celebrate their victory and honor their dead heroes.  The triumphant Nevsky announces that he will ransom the captured German knights.  Then he lets the vengeful townspeople tear to pieces two traitorous citizens who had been furtively assisting the Germans.

Vasili and Gavrilo are both wounded but survive, and their rivalry ends in a gentlemanly and tidy fashion.  Gavrilo gets Olga, while Vasili selects the equally beautiful Vasilisa.

In the final shot, Alexander Nevsky issues his stern warning to the outer world:
“Go and tell all the people in foreign parts that Rus lives.  Let people come to us as guests without fear.  But he who comes with sword in hand, by the sword shall perish. On this Rus stands and will forever stand!”

The entire film plays like a bizarre Gothic carnival, and its nightmarish features lie at the core of the film’s overall appeal. However, Eisenstein’s cinematography and editing are sometimes surprising, with numerous axis-of-action crossings and awkward jump cuts.  This may have been an artifact of Eisenstein’s rushed shooting schedule.  And the long battle scene of the Battle on Ice becomes repetitious after awhile and was in need of more context-establishing longer shots to help sustain the visual narrative flow.  Nevertheless, some of the fighting shots are effectively and realistically enhanced by foreground swordplay that often obscures the battling subjects of interest.  This promotes the feeling that the invisible witness is right in the middle of the chaotic action.

In the end, we can see that Alexander Nevsky is a celebration of blood-and-soil patriotism, which always comes to dominate in times of war.  When war comes, all principles of universal humanity and empathy for the brotherhood (and sisterhood) of man are set aside in subservience to the heroic leader, like Alexander Nevsky.  So despotic elites sustain themselves and live off of the threat of war.
In recent times the threat of war has been extended further – to the notion of a pervasive and eternal terrorist threat. This is what was evoked by the Nazis after the Reichstag fire in 1933. (Immediately after the fire, the German Nazi government blamed it on leftist terrorists, suspended basic human rights in the  country, and let Hitler rule by decree.) This notion of a a pervasive and eternal terrorist threat is also the foundational thinking behind the current Global War on Terror. So we must be prepared, because current despotic leaders (and their chief strategist/puppetmasters) will most likely conjure up another Reichstag fire sometime in the next few years in an attempt to put an end to liberal, law- and rights-based democracy [13]. 

  1. Evelyn Gerstein, “Russia’s Film Wizard”, Theater Guild Magazine (February 1930), included in Introduction to the Art of the Movies, Lewis Jacobs, (ed.), (1960), pp. 134-139.
  2. Sergei Eisenstein, “Collision of Ideas”, (selection from "The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram”, Film Form, Jay Leyda (trans. and ed.), Harcourt Brace and Company, (1949/1957), pp. 37-40.), Film, A Montage of Theories, Richard Dyer MacCann, E. P. Dutton, (1966), pp. 34-37.
  3. Sergei Eisenstein, The Film Sense, Jay Leyda (trans. and ed.), Harcourt Brace and Company, (1942). 
  4. Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form, Jay Leyda, (trans. and ed.), Harcourt Brace and Company, (1949).
  5. S. Eisenstein, “Eisenstein on Sound”, New York Sun, (5 June 1930), included in Introduction to the Art of the Movies, Lewis Jacobs, (ed.), (1960), pp. 165-167.
  6. J. Hoberman, “Alexander Nevsky”, The Criterion Collection, (23 April 2001).   
  7. Roger Ebert, “Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & II”, RogerEbert.com, (19 January 2012). 
  8. Roderick Heath, “Alexander Nevsky (1938)”, Ferdy on Films, (2010).  
  9. Matthew Dessem, “#87: Alexander Nevsky”, The Criterion Contraption, (1 September 2008).  
  10. “Blood and Soil”, Wikipedia, (20 February 2017).   
  11. “Nikolay Cherkasov Biography”, iMDB, (n.d.).  
  12. Michael E. Grost, “Sergei Eisenstein”, Classic Film and Television, (n.d.).    
  13. Timothy Snyder, "The Reichstag Warning", The New York Review of Books, (26 February 2017).   

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