The Teutonic Knights invade the city of Pskov and massacre its population. In the face of resistance, Nevsky rallies the common people of Novgorod and in a decisive Battle of the Ice, they defeat the enemy and retake the city.
The USSR of the 1920s had witnessed an explosion of creativity in the visual arts. The heady rush to find new Soviet forms of creative expression with a social function (the philosophy of constructivism) led to thrilling cinematic experimentation. Directors such as Vsevelod Pudovkin and Dziga Vertov had exposed the Hollywood style of continuity editing as just one bourgeois method of film construction. Sergei Eisenstein had been the most prominent of these Soviet filmmakers. His mastery of intellectual montage had led to international approval for Battleship Potemkin (1925) for its rhythm, use of juxtaposition and overall impact.
Eisenstein had also insisted on limiting the role of the individual at the centre of narrative; instead favouring the masses as united in proletarian heroism. For this, he utilised typage, a style that rejected ‘acting’ in favour of casting an appropriate-looking figure to play a particular part. The emotional impact of ‘performance’ was instead created through the dynamics of editing. Eisenstein’s strong sense of compositional geometry and use of the shocking image were also key techniques. Scenes such as the horse hung from a rising bridge in October (1928), or the runaway pram amid Tsarist brutality in Battleship Potemkin are bold, memorable and terrifying. These films dripped with political intent in both form and content.
By 1938, the age of experimentation was over. Joseph Stalin’s cult of personality was firmly established and the stylistic experimentation of the 1920s had been banned. All Soviet filmmaking was overseen by Boris Shumyatsky, who answered directly to Stalin. Shumyatsky’s ‘Soviet Hollywood’ insisted on a doctrine of socialist realism: no more formalist adventures, only depictions of idealised socialist goals starring positive, proletarian heroes.
The result was a period of light comedies and ‘tractor musicals’ – entertainment that was ideologically Marxist and unchallenging to comprehend. Bureaucratic control of film production strangled invention, projects were expensively shelved and making the wrong film could result in executions. ‘Dissident’ thinkers (essentially, anyone who thought differently from the paranoid and capricious Stalin) could expect life to be made difficult, leading perhaps to imprisonment or death.1 Eisenstein was singled out for attack and had to admit to ‘past mistakes’. Perhaps inevitably in this dangerous era, Shumayatsky himself was executed in 1938.
By the time he came to make Alexander Nevsky, Eisenstein had not been able to complete a film for nine years. However, if the title implies a break from Eisenstein’s earlier style, suggesting a central figure who dominates the action, Alexander Nevsky is far from a straight capitulation to the socialist realist mould.
The film’s events are set in thirteenth-century Russia. Already under the control of the Mongols, there is a fresh threat from Germany: the Teutonic Knights. After a brutal sacking of the city of Pskov, the citizens of Novgorod ask the eponymous hero to come to their aid. Nevsky makes the symbolic decision to fight the invaders on the frozen Lake Peipus, rather than on Russian soil. After a bloody battle, the German knights are defeated. They retreat and the ice breaks under the combined weight of their heavy armour, drowning the defeated army. The metonymy for a strong Russia united behind a ‘divine’ leader facing what seemed an imminent Nazi invasion is unsubtle. In 1938, this threat was very real, so the account of a successful rout of a seemingly invincible foreign army is unmistakable propaganda.
At this time, Stalin had taken to approving films concerning the daring, though often cruel, acts of Tsars and royalists from Russia’s past. Official endorsement was given for films of the lives of Peter the Great or Eisenstein’s later Ivan the Terrible. Clearly, Stalin was casting himself in the role of the benign leader, faced with the hard choice of imposing tyranny for the greater good. The figure of Nevsky is therefore problematic for the modern viewer. Unlike the following Ivan the Terrible films where a dictatorial central figure is presented warts and all, Nevsky is the Premier’s uncritical stand-in.
Eisenstein bolsters Nevsky’s nobility with use of Christian symbolism: he is first seen among fishermen, for example, and his banishment of the Novgorod wealthy echoes Christ’s expulsion of the temple money lenders (O’Mahony 2008: 168). Christian imagery occurs throughout the work of the avowedly anti-religious Eisenstein, proving ripe for compositional plunder when required by the lapsed Catholic director seeking dramatic effect. His films are littered with examples of borrowed church iconography used to emphasise grandness in composition or build on emotional impact. Contemporary Soviet images of its leaders already utilised quasi-religious symbolism to represent both Lenin and Stalin. Nevsky, frequently framed in low angle and given to wise proclamations, is cast as leader, saviour and saint – exactly the representation desired by Stalin for himself.
However, religion itself is presented as destructive and treacherous. The monks are sinister and self-serving, and Eisenstein mischievously includes swastikas among the devout symbolism on the costumes of some of the German priests, whose actions are inhuman and cruel. Conversely, while speechifying to backdrops of churches, the Russians speak of their land and humanity, not the will of God. Their visible faces contrast with the robotic, alarmingly helmeted invading army. The usual semiotic convention is reversed by having the heroic characters clothed in black versus the villainous oppressors in white. There is sense in this: the Russians are ‘of the earth’, opposed to the Catholic enemy, the bringers of ‘salvation’ through death.
The ordinary people are thus rendered heroic and defined by their earthiness, appropriate for the communist ideal of collective labour. Eisenstein opens the film with shots of Russian skulls scattered across the ground from a previous battle. Later, the Russian soldiers ‘seem to be springing out of the land itself’ (Scherr 2001: 221) when roused to combat. Eisenstein frequently frames the soldiers low in the shot, often allowing the sky to dominate the composition, emphasising their connection to the land.
Conversely, as a purely symbolic figure of great courage, Nevsky himself is never presented with any depth, being reduced to a series of gestures, valiant proclamations and little else. He never fears defeat nor experiences anything like a dramatic setback throughout the entire film, thus rendering him a remote figure. Similarly, the Teutonic Knights are never presented with any greater detail than manifest villainy.
If the film’s hero is too remote and the villains too machine-like, then it is the proletariat who bring the film to life. All the human interaction is left to the ordinary soldiers and peasants. The friendly rivalry between Vasili and Gavrilo and the sacrifice of Ignat give the film its human face and hark back to the contrast between the crudely drawn ruling class and the naturalistic portrayal of the proletariat from Eisenstein’s silent period. The result is a film whose warmth comes largely from the scenes where the title character is absent (Scherr 2001: 213), recalling a link to Eisenstein’s 1920s direction of performance and his earlier use of typage.
Alexander Nevsky is justly lauded for its organisation of spectacle during the magnificent battle on the ice sequence.The rhythmic cutting between long shots and close-ups, the dynamic composition and the mobile camera carry what is largely 37 minutes of dialoguefree scrapping. If the battle seems less than astonishing to the contemporary viewer, it is because Eisenstein’s technique has been imitated endlessly ever since. Random examples range from Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1966) to Miike Takashi’s 13 Assassins (2010).
What is less imitated is Eisenstein’s approach to continuity. The Russian army seems to face a charging enemy that is shot from multiple angles, rather than using the more logical consistency of shot–reverse shot so the Germans appear to make an omnidirectional assault. What Eisenstein loses in temporal logic, he gains in dramatic impact.
The sacking of Pskov is the film’s most brutal sequence and is reminiscent of Eisenstein’s climaxto his debut film Strike (1925) in its shock effect. The contrast between the defeated but dignified Russian citizens and the malicious Teutonic Knights is emphasised by the invaders’ dehumanising helmets and sinister stillness. Eisenstein frames them in low angle, contrasting with their terrified prisoners. The sequence builds to one of cinema’s most awful atrocities as naked children are thrown onto a burning pyre.
Discussing Eisenstein’s ‘socialist realism’ period, the critic David Bordwell considers how this sequence is structured as ‘always establishing a set of elements and then rearranging them, eliminating some and introducing others, putting some in the background while promoting others’ (in Scherr 2001: 25). The consequence for the spectator is alarming as characters seem to appear out of nowhere. Ever the formalist, Eisenstein’s brutal editing underscores the violence of the sequence using the axial cut, the ‘cutting in or back straight along the lens axis’ (ibid: 15– 16) instead of the more conventional edit to an angle greater than 30 degrees away, or a forward or backward track or zoom. When using this technique, the actors tend to remain stationary within a static frame while Eisenstein relies on the sudden cuts, rather than character or camera movement to create action through movement. The result of this is startling, creating a diegetic space that is dependent entirely on Eisenstein’s dogmatic organisation of montage.
Likewise, the film’s approach to the soundtrack is extraordinary. Eisenstein found himself in appropriate company with the composer Sergei Prokofiev, who was also considered ideologically suspect by the Soviet authorities. The extent to which the visuals and music in Alexander Nevsky are intertwined is a real meeting of minds. Eisenstein worked closely with Prokofiev throughout the shooting, holding discussions as to mood and effect. Several sequences are cut to a previously recorded music-track. Eisenstein was strict with himself about which types of shot he could or couldn’t use, dictated by the structure of the music. In his writings, Eisenstein reveals his methods behind the scene where pipes and drums are played for the victorious Russian soldiers:
“I couldn’t find a way to explain to Prokofiev what precise effect should be ‘seen’ in his music for this joyful moment. Seeing that we were getting nowhere, I ordered some ‘prop’ instruments constructed, shot these being played (without sound) visually, and projected the results for Prokofiev – who almost immediately handed me an exact ‘musical equivalent’ to that visual image of pipers and drummers which I had shown.” (1943: 124)
Throughout, Prokofiev uses musical themes to emphasise the contrast between the rival armies. Russian identity is evoked through folk melodies and consonant harmonies; the Germans are signified with severe tones and intimidating rhythms. During the battle, these elements in the soundtrack collide, each seeking to dominate within the score. The score for the film is highly regarded as a separate entity, though it is within the context of the film itself that it truly flies. The ice battle is an astonishing choreography of image and sound.
The fate of the Alexander Nevsky’s exhibition is typical of Eisenstein’s fortunes during the decade. Released to initial acclaim in 1938, the August 1939 Soviet non-aggression pact with Hitler saw the film withdrawn. Come the 1941 Nazi invasion, it was rereleased with additional relevance. Chillingly, the sacking of Pskov sequence accurately predicts the real Nazi atrocities that were to be visited upon the city during the war. Fortunately for Russia, the film’s victorious outcome also proved prophetic.
1. See Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1994, p. 295.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USSR. Production Company: Mosfilm. Director: Sergei Eisenstein. Screenwriters: Sergei Eisenstein and Pyotr Pavlenko. Cinematographer: Eduard Tisse. Music: Sergei Prokofiev. Cast: Nikolai Cherkasov (Alexander Nevsky), Nikolai Okhlopkov (Vasili), Andrei Abrikosov (Gavrilo).]
David Bordwell, ‘Eisenstein, Socialist Realism and the Charms of Mizanstsena’ in Al LaValley and Barry Scherr (eds), Eisenstein at 100, New Brunswick, New Jersey & London, Rutgers University Press, 2001, pp. 13–37.
Sergei Eisenstein, The Film Sense, London, Faber & Faber, 1943. Jay Leyda, Kino A History of the Russian and Soviet Film, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1960.
Mike O’Mahony, Sergei Eisenstein, London, Reaktion, 2008. Barry Scherr, ‘Alexander Nevsky: A Film Without a Hero’, in Al LaValley and Barry P. Scherr (eds), Eisenstein at 100, New Brunswick, New Jersey & London, Rutgers University Press, 2001, pp. 207–26.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.