Saturday, July 26, 2008

Review – Alexander Nevsky

July 27, 2008

Alexander Nevsky – Russia, 1938

That Alexander Nevsky is still available today is significant in itself. A year earlier, Eisenstein’s Bezhin Meadow, the story of a young boy who is murdered by his father, ran afoul of the Russian propaganda machine and was eventually banned and destroyed by Stalin. Eisenstein himself later wrote a stinging self-critique in which he took blame for going off message and emphasizing the individual over the collective culture. Eisenstein avoided doing this in his 1938 film Alexander Nevsky. The film is part history, part propaganda, and part fairy tale.

The film begins in the 13th century at a time when Russia was a divided country and in danger of attack from all sides. As the film begins, the Mongols occupy a part of what is now Russia after what the opening scroll describes as a “Mongol bloodbath.” In addition, the Knights of the Teuton Order, a division of the German army, are invading from the West. The Knights are an odd group. Decked out in helmets that appear to be made out of water pails, white suits and capes, they look like a cross between Arthurian knights, monsters from Greek legend, members of the Klu Klux Klan, and robots from early science fiction films. As they sweep through Russia, they leave a path of devastation. In the city of Pskov, they hang two leaders who advocate resistance, slaughter captured and defenseless men, and hurl the city’s infants into large bonfires. The intent of these scenes is clear. They warn Russians of the cruelty of the German army at a time when Germany was indeed threatening to invade the former Soviet Union. Contemporary audiences are likely to also see a parallel between the cruelty of the Knights and the savagery of the Nazis towards Jews throughout Europe during the Second World War.

We first see Alexander (well played by Nikolai Cherkasov) at the Pleshcheevo Lake in the Mongol-occupied area of Germany. As well as being a prince, Alexander is a fisherman and has visions of building ships to enable the fishing trade to flourish. However, after single-handedly saving his men from receiving a severe beating from a troop of Mongol soldiers, it is clear that his country’s survival will take precedence of improving its trade. Standing much like Superman and Hercules do in popular images, his arms extending out horizontally, his hands on the side of his hips, his head slightly raised, Alexander appears invincible. All the while, patriotic music can be heard in the background proclaiming the might and resilience of Russians and how Russia cannot be defeated. Eventually Alexander and his army make their way to Novgorod, where he raises an army, a combination of his personal army and locally-recruited soldiers (the film refers to them as peasants) and sets out to engage the advancing German army.

Before that happens though we are introduced to Vasily Buslai and Gavrilo Olexich, two soldiers who both have their eye on a young woman named Olga Danilovna. Olga in turn likes them both and can’t decide which one to marry. After it is clear that war is coming, she tells them that she will marry the one who proves himself the most courageous in battle. This leads to moments that are awkward and implausible, as the two men engage in battle with the enemy and simultaneously remind the other of the prize they are seeking to attain through battle glory. This part of the story did not work for me, but Russians would have recognized in these characters some of the common elements of Russian fairy tales involving knights, battles, and beautiful women.

Eisenstein devotes much of Alexander Nevsky to the epic ice battle of April 5, 1242, a battle that was fought in what for the Russians was enemy territory. It is with this battle that Eisenstein shows the military genius of Alexander Nevsky. He is shown analyzing the enemy’s tactics and designing a strategy to counter them. In addition, he uses the nature’s elements, in particular the fragile ice, to his advantage. And in the spirit of Achilles and Hector, he participates in the battle, at one point even personally challenging the leader to of the German army to a one-on-one combat. There are other similarities to Homer’s epic The Iliad. Like the soldiers in that book, soldiers in Alexander’s army engage in conversation with other soldiers and sometimes with no one in particular (watch Vasily for examples of this) while the battle is taking place. For example, at one point during the battle, Alexander has a conversation with a merchant-blacksmith about what makes a sword special. Now, I’ve never been in battle, but I doubt there would be much of an opportunity for such a conversation. I think you’d be too worried that someone was sneaking up behind you to discuss the merits of a sword or make jokes about your own invulnerability.

Alexander Nevsky, like many other Eisenstein films, is a wonder to behold. Eisenstein packs so much into the film visually, from views of polar opposites, such as the sky and the ground, the light and the dark, to the epic battle itself, that it is impossible not to be impressed by the spectacle in front of you. It’s also impossible not to see the political machine spinning in front of you. Couple that with a few strangely scored scenes (a few part of the ice battle use music more appropriate for a carnival), background songs that never allow the viewer to forget that film’s message of patriotism, loyalty and love of the motherland, and the silly love story, and what you have is a film that loses a bit of its power in the end. Still, it’s impossible not to be greatly moved by the film, especially when Alexander, his side victorious, does not gloat or smile. Instead, he scans the devastation around him, the littered bodies of both friend and foe, and says nothing. Later, he will tell the people of Pskov to keep the ice battle alive in their memory, to never forget the sacrifices that were made to preserve their homeland. It is a message that resonates with the audience as well. (on DVD from Criterion Collection)

3 stars

*Alexander Nevsky is in Russian with English subtitles. It is part of Criterion’s 3-disc box set Eisenstein: The Sound Years.

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