1930s, Action-Adventure, Film Decade, Foreign, Historical, Russian cinema, War

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

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Directors: Sergei Eisenstein, Dmitri Vasilyev

By Roderick Heath

In the decade after he reshaped cinema with his then-experimental technique in works like Strike (1924), Battleship Potemkin (1925), and October (1928), Sergei Eisenstein became a peripatetic semi-exile when Stalin’s rise made life uncomfortable for him at home, and the international film scene beckoned. And yet he became a world-famous artist without a friendly harbour to anchor in. A visit to Hollywood had seen him patronised by David Selznick when he handed in his screenplay adapted from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy: “It was for me a most memorable experience,” Selznick wrote to RKO executive B. P. Schulberg, “The most moving script I have ever read…Is it too late to try to [dissuade] the enthusiasts of the picture from making it?” An attempt to make what Eisenstein described as “a shabby travelogue into a really major film,” Que Viva Mexico!, with the backing of leftist writer Upton Sinclair as his producer, resulted in an unfinished pile of beautiful fragments. Eisenstein slunk back to the USSR, fortunately having missed the worst years of the Great Purge.

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Eisenstein’s return seemed well-timed as he commenced work on a film that would evoke historical parable for resistance against invasion, as a dread pall was hanging over Soviet Russia as it was Europe, expecting conflict with Germany’s Nazi regime. Eisenstein’s credited codirector Vasilyev and coscreenwriter Pyotr Pavlenko were imposed collaborators, charged with the job of keeping the taint of “formalism” out of the project. When the movie had been completed and rushed into theatres, Hitler and Stalin signed their nonaggression pact, and Eisenstein found himself and his film embarrassedly stowed away, only to be rehabilitated when war between the two superstates finally did break out. In spite of all these weighty matters, Alexander Nevsky in many ways sits with some comfort amongst other historical adventure films in the late ’30s, particularly the Michael Curtiz-Errol Flynn films like The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and Cecil B. DeMille films like The Crusades (1935). Unlike those brash, breezy, technically more polished films, Eisenstein pares back as much drama as possible to concentrate on the synergistic flow of his shots and carefully built rhythmic intensity. The storyline operates on the most primal of levels.

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Set against the macrocosmic drama facing the assailed city-states of the Rus, with oppression by the Mongol Golden Horde on one side and the advancing fanatical forces of the Teutonic knights on other, Eisenstein pits characters who might have stepped directly out of a folktale: warriors Vasily Buslai and Gavrilo Olexich (Nikolai Okhlopkov and Andrei Abrikosov), best of friends competing to win the hand of beautiful Novgorod maiden Olga (Vera Ivashova), who declares she will marry the man who proves himself bravest in battle; Vasilisa (Aleksandra Danilov), whose father is executed by the Germans when the city of Pskov is captured through treachery by the Knights, takes up a sword herself and joins the massing Russian resistance; Ignat (Dmitriy Orlov), an aged armourer who becomes embodiment of native pluck in venturing into battle; and Alexander himself (Nikolai Cherkasov), warrior chief of Vladimir who gained the sobriquet “Nevsky” for beating off a Swedish army on the banks of the Neva, the embodiment of sober, conscientious kingship.

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Alexander is first glimpsed when a train of Mongols dragging captive Russians off for forced labour pass by a fishing party, and the peasants and Mongol soldiers begin to clash. Alexander shouts from the water, “Quiet! The fish will take fright!” Striding ashore, he exchanges loaded words with the smiling, autocratic Golden Horde khan (Lyan-Kun). Apart from his cutting, commanding voice and bright, challenging, innately intelligent eyes, Alexander is indistinguishable in his manner and dress from the men he leads, and his casual willingness to get his feet dirty in leading the fishing party contrasts the Mongol, who has a soldier prostrate himself to make a step for him to get into his litter. This scene serves a double purpose: it helps the film overcome the inevitable problem in a Soviet work of the era of how to make a hero of a king, and, more pertinently, establishes Alexander’s character: making no more fuss than necessary and with a goal in mind, he’s receptive to any incidental intuition. Later, he gets the inspiration for his battle strategy from a bawdy joke. In my favourite moment of Cherkasov’s in the film, Alexander paces in distraction and quiet agony around his palace where two of his liegemen mend their fishing net, anticipating the call to fight the Germans and wondering how to beat this formidable enemy. Alexander contemplates the strands of the net, and then tears them apart in frustration: “This is delicate work…not like fighting Swedes…”

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When the delegates do arrive to beg his aid, he declares with new life: “I know nothing of defence! We attack!” Alexander becoming captain to the Rus is preceded by a fierce communal argument in which the citizens of Novgorod, closest to the onward sweep of the Germans, listen to the testimony of those who have escaped from Pskov. Rich merchants and paid agents argue to make a deal with the knights, but the evidence of mangled survivors and treachery infuriates the patriots who shout down the rich men and demand competent leadership: Domash (Nikolai Arsky), a warrior of standing who is their initial choice, turns down the job, insisting that only Alexander can win for them. Alexander replies that the warrior elite of Rus can’t win, and calls for a national uprising; the very earth itself disgorges streams of peasants used to hiding from marauders converging on Novgorod for an exultant expression of fighting spirit.

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Through his montage theory, probably no other director has had such a consequential impact on the development of cinema in general as Eisenstein, but Alexander Nevsky is the film of his that’s had a more particular influence. It’s the perfect model of the few-against-many, good-against-evil epic. Laurence Olivier pillaged it for his Henry V (1945), and it’s hard to imagine movies as popular and diverse as fantasies such as The Lord of the Rings series and Conan the Barbarian (1982), scifi works like the Star Wars saga, and a raft of historical action dramas (David Lean’s films, Spartacus [1960], Braveheart [1995], King Arthur [2004]), without Eisenstein’s model. They quote his optical and editorial tricks, and replicate the dramatic dynamics of his Battle on the Ice sequence. A significant difference between Nevsky and most of the films it influenced, however, is not merely its immediate consequence as a tool for rousing the audience and telling a good yarn, but that it’s a work that channels anthropological and folk-art influences in an attempt to conjure a sense of the past as living tradition, not mere escapism. Nevsky takes the rules of Norse sagas and iconic art seriously to reproduce in part their aesthetics in the context of realistic ’30s cinema.

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Sergei Prokofiev’s score, with its chorale commentaries on the action, entwines with recurring visual motifs that evoke that state of Rus in the mid 1200s—a land of bleaching bones after decades of massacres by the Mongols and stranded longboats redolent of the Viking founders of Vladimir and Novgorod—in painting a cultural context, and a harmonious concept of the drama about to unfold as part of Russia’s past and present. Prokofiev’s work on the film was and is one of the signal collaborations between a great cinema artist and a highly regarded classical composer, and it’s still certainly one of the greatest film scores ever recorded, especially if sheer dramatic necessity is a yardstick—the score is so deeply woven into the film it wouldn’t exist in the same way without it, making Nevsky a true pan-cultural creation. Eisenstein and Prokofiev used all available means of achieving that linked effect, composer writing music to the script and director cutting scenes to match material already written. Nevsky is negligibly lessened by a few overly arch moments of propaganda, but moreso by its technical problems. The film was made with an experimental sound system that had a muffling effect on much of the dialogue and especially on the score, and the rush to get the film in theatres forestalled any tweaking.

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Eisenstein had one of cinema’s most perfect eyes for composing elements within a frame, and his efforts here both extend the high modernism of early Soviet cinema, evident in occasional semi-abstract arrangements, and enrich his visuals with the squared-off perspective of Byzantine-influenced Russian art. In the first half, his compositions are studiously geometric, his actors carefully posing in declarative attitudes: Alexander surveying the expanse of the green Russian dales with an old peasant at his side, or Buslai and Olexich assuming poses in contending for Olga, who constantly stands with back to the two hovering, towering men. This might sound flat and pompous, and yet it’s anything but. What’s remarkable is how Eisenstein uses these qualities to suggest powerful, composing forces, building tension through alternations of hypnotic quiet and tersely delivered dialogue, and violent communal arguments and celebrations on the path from panic and questioning on behalf of the frightened Rus folk to the moment of fearless readiness for the eruptive chaos of battle.

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Just as deliberately flat, and yet still lovably vibrant, are the characterisations. On an almost pantomime level, good and evil are chiefly a matter of expression and dress. The Teutonic villains are so stylised in their evil they barely seem like part of the same species, which is very much the point. In their warrior regalia they seem less like an army of God, though they wrap themselves in religious paraphernalia and espouse Roman Catholicism as a totalitarian ideology, than stygian beasts: Ignat describes one as a witch after besting him. Even when they take off their helmets, they’re a mob of lean, grim, self-satisfied-looking bastards, the Grand Master (Vladimir Yershov) coldly declaring that anyone who resists them will be slaughtered, whilst handing out stolen principalities casually to his followers. The traitors who have delivered Pskov into their hands through connivance and rumour-mongering are shifty-eyed and dour, in contrast to the beaming, sunny Russians.

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The contrast between Buslai and Olexich is one of two variations on the basic Russian character, made most amusingly clear when they court Olga: apple-cheeked, boisterous Buslai declares, “If you want a fun-loving man, marry me!” To which more somber Olexich retorts, “If want to be beaten with a birch stick every night, choose him indeed.” Olga and Vasilisa, too, form a diptych in thrilling at the great action unfolding before them, but each takes a different path: demure Olga makes her pledge to the two warriors, whilst Vasilisa dons a helmet and chain mail and go to war. It’s Vasilisa versus the Germans, and this time, it’s personal: her father, an elder of Pskov, has been executed before her eyes for denouncing the German invaders—hung from a belltower.

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The sequence in Pskov, portraying the evil knights relishing having bound prisoners executed en masse with pikes and screaming children cast into bonfires with the blessing of pet churchmen, is extreme warning and spur to action (one of history’s saddest ironies is that Eisenstein’s apocalyptic manipulation here would soon come to appear too tame). And, of course, in movie language, we know these creeps are ripe to get their asses royally booted. After his advance guard is wiped up thanks to further treachery by the two traitors who are moving back and forth between the lines, Alexander, against the nervous objections of Buslai, decides to make his stand on Lake Chudskoye, on the boundary between Novgorod and Pskov. There’s actually a lot of historical confusion about just how big (and where) a battle took place on April 5, 1242, with probably far fewer warriors (some place the number at less than a thousand) taking part than is portrayed in the film, but of course, everyone wishes it happened the way this film tells it. The Battle of the Ice sees Eisenstein’s camera, as well as the heroes, let loose with symphonic ferocity, and the build-up to it is one of the great sequences of suspense in any movie.

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The vignettes of the battle are more memorable than most entire films: the early shots of the ranked Russians, Vasilisa and Ignat amongst them, waiting anxiously under stormy clouds on the great white nothing of the lake, peering into the distance as they try to make out the slowly emerging mass of German cavalry; Buslai and Olexich, after days of resenting each other, embracing before taking their posts; the Teutonic knights riding in with their encasing helmets looking like aliens, robots, steampunk tanks; Prokofiev’s music rising to its most menacing and tremendous swells, low chugging horns and high shrieking string, until the two armies crash into each other in whirls of steel and limbs; Olexich and Alexander’s charge to close the trap; Olexich hurling himself in front of Alexander to save his life and getting a chest full of spear points; the horrified expressions of the traitors in watching the knights lose; Vasilisa working up the courage to come out of her hiding place on a wagon, braver and braver in striking out at the Germans.

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Particularly riveting is how Eisenstein switches from occasional long shots, in which the formations of the armies and tussling, fragmented gangs, form almost abstract patterns, to handheld shots within the melee, concussive in their immersive, you-are-there vigour. One moment, when Eisenstein cuts from Alexander’s victories over an opponent to the laughing faces of onlookers and the exultation of musicians cheering on the team, makes the battle reminiscent of a sports film. My favourite moment is when Buslai, losing his sword, is tossed a wooden spar by Vasilisa, with which he joyfully bashes in the stout helmets of the knights, releasing a whoop of exultation as he bounces the spar from hand to hand like a hot potato, high on his own conquering strength; later, when Buslai dresses in a fallen German’s uniform, he clobbers his way out from inside their ranks. Alexander’s final duel with the Grand Master sees him finally topple the villain before the Germans take flight and are swallowed in the Biblical moment when the lake’s ice gives way and plunges them into the frigid brine.

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Fittingly, Eisenstein intended this sequence in part as a tribute to the other great progenitor of cinema language, D. W. Griffith—specifically, the ice-floe scenes in Way Down East (1920). Even greater than the battle, in a more subtle way, is the aftermath, the lake ice a charnel house of broken bodies, wounded and dying men calling for their loved ones, both Olexich and Buslai lying crippled as night falls. The women of Novgorod, including Olga, come out on the ice bearing torches to search for their loved ones, a female voice on the soundtrack voicing the sentiments of the scene in desolate fashion. Rarely has a film of this sort paid such attention to the cost of even heroic triumph. The final scene is, however, one of victory and resolution, as the traitors and captive Germans haul sled-loads of the wounded, and Buslai declares, in defiance of his mother, that neither he nor Olexich were as brave as Vasilisa, allowing Olexich and Olga to marry because he’s found his girl in Vasilisa, a delightfully neat clincher to the quandary. The result is one of those few films that makes the boundary between high art and blissful entertainment melt away.

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