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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Alexander Nevsky

nevsky

Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Country: Soviet Union
Year: 1938

Background

By the late 1920’s, Sergei Eisenstein had directed three acclaimed films: Strike, Battleship Potemkin, and October. In 1929, however, he found himself on Stalin’s shit list when censors rejected his agrarian reform film, The General Line. Besides his crazy agrarian reform ideas, the state-run film industry also objected to Eisenstein’s use of non-standard camera angles, montage sequences, and other tell-tale signs of his lack of commitment to Mother Russia. Eisenstein fled the Soviet Union and traveled abroad for several years, but was eventually allowed to return, as long as he promised to make more “Russia is Awesome!”-type movies, which he readily agreed to do.

Which brings us to 1938’s Alexander Nevsky. Under orders to produce a suitably pro-Soviet film, Eisenstein searched the history books and came across a perfect subject in the 13th century: Prince Aleksandr Yaroslavich Nevskij, AKA Alexander Nevsky, a handsome god among men, brilliant statesman and military strategist, who – wait for it – soundly defeated the invading German army (at the “Battle of the Ice” – look it up). That was key, because, back in the 20th century, the Soviet Union was again being threatened by the Teutonic Hordes, and Stalin wanted to rouse the populace into support for the impending bloodbath.

With this film, Eisenstein followed orders and curtailed most of his fruity, traitorous, art-film tendencies, and produced his most linear, direct film. Sergei “Peter and the Wolf” Prokofiev composed the score, collaborating closely with Eisenstein. Stalin was shown an early rough cut of the film, loved it, presented everyone involved with a medal, and ordered that Alexander Nevsky be printed and distributed immediately. Unfortunately, the soundtrack had not been finished, and most existing versions of the film (including, sadly, the Janus/Criterion release) include several scenes where the soundtrack simply drops out or clumsily switches to a different recording of the same music.

Alexander Nevsky was a huge success, right up until Stalin decided that it might be a better idea to sign a treaty with Hitler, and subsequently banned the film for its now-inappropriate anti-German saber-rattling. In 1941, however, when Germany broke the treaty and invaded Russia, Stalin ordered the film un-banned and decreed that it was now required viewing for every Soviet citizen, under penalty of death. Okay, not really, but it was un-banned and screened in every Soviet theater.

Synopsis

In “THE 13TH CENTURY,” the opening titles tell us, “RUSSIA’S VAST AND RICH LANDS BECKONED AN INVADER…” Several invaders, as it turns out. As the film begins, our hero, Alexander Nevsky, is biding his time in Peryaslavl, a small fishing village. Fresh from a victory over the cruel and demonic Swedes (“We broke their ships into matchsticks!”), Nevsky (and, by extension, Russia) is now faced with two new invading armies: The Mongolian “Golden Horde” from the East, and the German Teutonic Lords from the West (I think).

Over in the “FREE CITY OF NOVGOROD,” we meet veterans Vasily and Gavrilo, who – judging strictly by what I learned in this film – were kind of the Abbott and Costello of 13th century Russia. Tired of war, these bumpkins are now looking forward to a relaxing roll in the hay with Olga, the hot Novgorod milkmaid (or something). Their bumbling pursuit of Olga is cut short when a bandaged stranger limps into town. “The Germans are advancing toward you!” he warns. “They are like wild beasts!” The townspeople are understandably agitated at this news, but local merchants and politicians dismiss the ranting of Crazy Bandaged Guy: “Don’t confuse these people! We have a treaty with Germany!” CBG responds with a well-reasoned argument that convinces many: “You can’t make a treaty with Germans! They are lying dogs!” After some spirited discussion, the townspeople decide to send for the only man with a proven track record of defeating blonde-haired armies: Alexander Nevsky.

Over in Pskov, the flaxen-haired Germans are – just as Crazy Bandaged Guy warned – raping the women and tossing crying babies into a flaming pit. Even today, seven decades after the film was first screened, this scene made me gasp aloud. “Whoever does not bow to Rome shall be put to death!” proclaim the Teutonic Lords, from beneath their monstrous and absurd iron helmets. A Catholic bishop accompanies the soldiers, his pope-ish hat festooned with swastikas. Yes, really.

Back in Peryaslavl, our hero learns of the despicable deeds of the Germans and vows revenge. “We must come to the defense of our homeland!” shouts a villager. “Defense?” sneers Nevsky, “I don’t know how to ‘defend’! We shall smite them with all our power!” Which segues nicely into a montage of the Russian peasants gathering to make war, set to a song which is repeated several times throughout the film:

Arise you Russian people, in a just battle to the death!
No foe will trample over Russia
No foreign army will plunder it
No enemy will find its routes
Or trample its fields!

Nevsky gathers the peasants to Novgorod, and they prepare to defend Mother Russia against the lying German dogs. The Novgorod blacksmith pledges to make a thousand shields, a thousand axes, and an unspecified number of Kevlar vests. As the men march off to certain death, Olga stays behind, but brave Vasilisa – the other Novgorod hottie – dons chain mail and joins the soldiers. “Even the small bird has a heart!” proclaims the blacksmith, who has a bizarre homily for every occasion.

The soldiers march into the frozen woods. While they await the coming battle, the blacksmith amuses them with a joke about a rabbit raping a fox, which I think was some sort of military metaphor. As the Germans approach, the Russian soldiers urge Nevsky to retreat across the river, so that they can fight on their own land. “One who won’t fight on enemy soil has no need of his own! I shall not let these dogs tread on the soil of Russia!” proclaims Alexander, bearded chin jutting magnificently into the moonlit sky.

Then follows the historic and lengthy “Battle on the Ice” sequence. The “German Wedge” attacks, and Nevsky’s men swoop in from both sides. The hacking and grimacing goes on for a while, but eventually the Russians prevail, and the Germans sink beneath the ice, weighed down by their ridiculous armor. Over lingering shots of the battlefield devastation, we hear a new song:

Some lie, torn with swords
Their blood pouring out on Mother Russia
I kiss your sightless eyes
And caress your cold forehead
As to the daring hero who survived the fight,
To him I shall be a loyal wife…

What I Liked

The score (except for the bizarre Carl Stalling-esque interludes during a couple of battle scenes played at Keystone Kops speed) is magnificent. The actors – though theatrical – are solid and even compelling (the guy who plays Nevsky is particularly magnetic). The sets, costumes, and special effects are astounding, given the date of the film’s release. The cinematography is suitably heroic/romantic; every shot looks like something from a Maxfield Parrish painting (but, you know, without the color).

What I Didn’t Like So Much

While Alexander Nevsky is certainly a technical triumph, let’s call a spade a spade: It’s straight-up, unapologetic, xenophobic propaganda. This is not a film of nuance or ambiguity; the bad guys are diabolical, leering, sadistic boogeymen, while Alexander Nevsky is so handsome, brave, honest and morally unimpeachable that he could just as easily be named Jesus. And when you realize that Nevsky is intended as a stand-in for Stalin, the whole enterprise is hard to take seriously.

Also, the screen is square. I know, I know: That was the accepted aspect ratio in 1938. Still, for a historical epic like this, it feels cramped (to me).

Should You See It?

If you are interested in film history in general, and/or Russian film, if you aren’t put off by subtitles, if you can tolerate this sort of theatrical acting and posturing, and if you can overlook (or smirk at) the Stalinist brown-nosing: Yes, you should see it. Alexander Nevsky is an amazing technical achievement and a rousing pre-300 “We must repel the invaders!” war film. It is also surprisingly engaging and occasionally very funny, if somewhat culturally alien and distancing.

Next: Ashes and Diamonds

5 Comments

  1. Hi, everyone!

    By way of introductions, I work with Matt at his day job. Thank you, Matt, for sharing this endeavor with me and others at the office. I’ve just finished watching this first movie, and since I’ve never written a critique before, please bear with me. Of course, I’ve discussed lots of movies with lots of people, but never by writing about it, so this feels kinda strange. But here goes:

    First off, I’m a pretty basic movie consumer, am fairly easily entertained, and really like old movies. However, I’m not a big fan of war films, nor am I a big history buff. So I was torn as to whether to watch this one or not. I purposely did not read any of the reviews before watching it, so as not to sway my decision. Finally I decided to go ahead and watch it, but in all honesty, mostly because of having mild OCD and not being able to start with movie number 2. I knew that at some point, I’d have to go back and watch movie number 1, and I’d always be bothered because I hadn’t started with the first movie on the list, first.

    Now that I’ve watched it, I would probably have been happier spending my time on something else. But art in all its forms is interesting, and I appreciate the craft of this movie (for its time); and now that I’m older, history has more relevance, so I have learned something new about the past (and how it can often repeat).

    The main thing, though, that I have taken from this movie is that this might have been where Monty Python got some of its material. I kept hearing the line, “I’m not dead [yet],” especially after the (extremely long!) battle, where the slain men who were lying on the frozen lake kept raising up and saying a loved one’s name before collapsing again, apparently for the last time.

    There was a very long time that passed between when Alexander hatched the plot to get the Germans out on the ice and have them break through, because of their heavier armor, and the scene where it actually happened. I waited for it for a while, after the battle started, then actually forgot about it, so it was kind of cool when it took place. (No pun intended.) I loved the shots of a bunch of the poor guys trying to get onto the same piece of floating ice (Styrofoam?*), only to have it turn upside down, again, and again.

    Yes, there was lots of symbolism. Thank you, Jason, for the most informative background on Eisenstein and Stalin.

    As to the music, it was sometimes terribly perfect and at others perfectly terrible. As to the costumes, the first of the two suitors (who were friends, and who both had their eye on the same maid) had on a weird jester-like outfit, I guess to show that he was more lighthearted than his competition, even though this was spelled out in the dialog. I can’t help but wonder what the colors were. The two ladies had quite the braids and earrings. And the helmets really were something else. In reality, how anyone fought in those things is beyond me.

    The film gives an interesting representation of what it was like to have fought in those times. On one hand, a mild hack with a fake hatchet would take a man down (silly), but on the other hand, it took hack after hack after hack to gain another foothold (probably realistic). After recently seeing “In Bruges,” the lack of gore in this movie was extremely refreshing, but at the same time, the killing scenes were ridiculously campy. And then there was the….

    Okay, my moon in Libra is showing. I think I’ll stop now, before I waffle you to death. Overall, I’d give it two out of five stars.

    Thanks again for the opportunity to participate!

    *From Wikipedia:

    Styrofoam is a trademark of Dow Chemical Company for extruded polystyrene foam presently made for thermal insulation and craft applications. In 1941, researchers in Dow’s Chemical Physics Lab found a way to make foamed polystyrene. Led by Ray McIntire, they had “rediscovered” a method first discovered by Swedish inventor C. G. Munters. Dow acquired exclusive rights to use Munter’s patents and found ways to make large quantities of extruded polystyrene as a closed cell foam that resisted moisture. Because of its insulating properties, buoyancy and “unsinkability”, it was adopted in 1942 by the U.S. Coast Guard for use in a six-person life raft.

    So, what were the Russians using in this film?

    And as I was looking at the cross-references from the Wiki cut-and-paste, I came to the word “moisture” and had to stop. “Moisture” is a wiki entry? I’ve got to go back and see what it says….

  2. Your review is so clever, funny, and detailed that I just don’t think I need to see the film! Thank you for that. Plus I could hear it through the movie-room door as I tried to work in my office. I have to agree with Matt on the score. But then, as my old friend Kelli used to say, “Robin is a musical moron”,so anyone who knows me knows my opinion on music doesn’t count for much (no reflection on you, Matt).

  3. I thank you, Jason, for your review of this film and you, Matt, for your additional comments regarding the review of this film. Upon serious consideration and much inner wrestling, I have, at long last, decided NOT to view this film. I do love many subtitled films and I do have a passing interest in Russion history, but it sounds like the fashion in this flick leaves a little to be desired. Plus, it doesn’t sound as if there are any female characters besides the ones who are slaughtered in the conflict.

    Thanks for the heads up on this one, guys.

  4. Oh, no – there were PLENTY of female characters… let’s see, there was Olga, who promises to marry whichever soldier is the most brave, and then there was Vasilisya(?), who puts on chain mail and hacks up the Germans right alongside the men, and then there was… well, yeah, I guess that was it. Two.
    Never mind.

  5. Okay, I will admit that I’m not that into subtitled films. I like to watch my films while doing the dishes, playing on my palm pilot or reading a book or magazine. Very easy to do when you’re watching films like “An Affair to Remember” – difficult to do while watching 70 year old Russian films. But, hey, it’s 2009. Time for me to get out of my box and start watching films that are made in (GASP!) FOREIGN COUNTRIES WHERE PEOPLE DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH.

    Also truthful, I watched this film after three glasses of red wine, a spegetti dinner and a couple rice-krispy treats covered in chocolate. So the fact that I nodded off a couple of times should be taken into account.

    Jason does a great job describing the film, better than I could, certainly and I won’t rehash what he has already aptly said. But I would describe the film as sort of a “Alamo” but with rousing fight songs. I think every country has their “GREAT BATTLE” whether it be “The Alamo” for the US, “Gallipoli” for the Austrailians or “Battle on the Lake” for the Russians. Granted, the Russians win – so I guess that makes their’s different.

    WHAT I LIKED:

    Over all the film was made very well for 1938. There were some interesting camera angles and the fight scenes were both majestic and intense. I also liked the fact that the hottie in the town basically says: “I’ll marry the one who…survives…” If that was me, I’d hide behind the nearest tree and let the other guy get killed.

    WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE

    Jason already mentions the propagandish nature of the film. I also thought it a bit MUCH to really over-emphasize the “Germans are Religious (crosses abound!)” and then the Germans kill EVERYONE – including naked babies and children. Toss them into the fire! But, yes, lots of “praying, kneeling, priest blessing them, etc.”

    Jason didn’t mention the “Princes” who had the helmet adornment. One with, I kid you not, a HAND sticking out of the top of his helmet and the other with a CLAW. The CLAW I understand, he’s got a kick-ass killing machine winged beast on his chest. The other guy just has a hand. Is this the precursor to the “high-five?” Is he from the “stop” tribe? And then I felt there were some continuity issues as I thought the “hand prince” had been killed but then I saw another guy with a “hand helmet” later. Maybe, there’s a bunch of them. Maybe that was one of the points I nodded off. Still, if I was in battle, I’d laugh at them.

    As for the battle sequences…they were very good but…very repetitious. They went on-and-on-and-on-and-on. Often times I could not tell who was killing who, who was winning, who was losing, etc.

    Acting was on par for the time/age/subject matter so no real complaints there.

    Finally, my last complaint and that was with the sound. The film was made with probably no on-set sound being used. Everything was dubbed later. Even though it’s 1938. But there are scenes with massive amounts of horses and not a “clip-clop” to be heard. On mountain-sides as the wind whips up their “oh-so-stylish” mop-top hair cuts…not a sound to be heard. It actually made it a bit disorienting for me as the sounds were VERY basic – except in the battle scenes where the sounds were very…repetitive.

    I also thought it funny that everyone referred to Russia as “Rus!” (Roos!). I can’t imagine John Wayne rallying the Texans with a “Let’s fight to the death for USA!” Well…maybe he did.

    Out of 5 Stars…I’ll give it 3.

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