July 04, 2021

Eisenstein's Mythic Masterpiece: Alexander Nevsky

Eisenstein's Mythic Masterpiece: Alexander Nevsky
A modern, mosaic take on a medieval Russian hero. Messir, Wikimedia Commons

War films from the 1930s aren't usually on most people's weekend watchlist, much less Russian war films from the 1930s. But Eisenstein's 1938 Alexander Nevsky is definitely worth a watch, even if it's not popcorn-friendly. It's not only interesting; it's also a cultural relic of Stalinism, and was the catalyst for much of what we know (or think we know) about Nevsky today.

The film follows Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod, as he rallies his people to defend themselves from brutal, barbaric, zealous German Teutonic knights. In the climactic scene, Nevsky and his troops defeat the invaders on an ice-covered lake using superior cunning. The film ends with a call for all Russians to take up arms to defend their holy land, now and forever.

The people of Russia rally around Nevsky, left. Those are torches of celebration, not anger. | Mosfilm 

The story is based on the life of the real thirteenth-century Alexander Nevsky, who as prince of Novgorod balanced diplomacy with the Mongols with defense from the Teutons in 1240-1242. Of course, in real life, he wasn't the ardent defender he's displayed as here. The real Nevsky was pretty lax on the Mongols, far from the hard-nosed negotiator here; in one episode, he personally escorted census-takers (sent by the Khan to measure the amount of required tribute) through the city to protect them from a simmering populace. His death in 1263 occurred after paying homage to the Khan in Sarai. And the climactic Battle on the Ice, where heavily-armored German troops drowned after falling through the sheet into the freezing water below, is hard to place; our evidence for it actually happening is pretty threadbare.

No matter. It's a good story. And besides, Nevsky is a saint now (since 1547), and you can say hello to him (or his body, what's left of him) at the lavra named for him in St. Petersburg.

Nevsky and mongol
Nevsky rebukes a Mongol, in Eisenstein's telling. | Mosfilm

Nevsky was not Eisenstein's first rodeo; far from it. He was already well-established among Soviet and worldwide filmmakers. Films such as Battleship Potemkin (1926) and October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1927) had earned him great acclaim. You know montages, those sequences where the kung fu student practices for a long time or the hero gears up for a fight? Eisenstein helped invent them by noticing that emotions could be manipulated by splicing together two seemingly random shots. All this to say that he was a film whiz. His partnership with composer Sergei Prokofiev for Nevsky certainly didn't hurt, either.

So, as a film, Nevsky is a confluence of an extremely good director, extremely talented musician, extremely fascinating history... and very, very obvious Stalinist ideological overtones. It's steeped in them, oozing. They drip from the film like thick honey. This is hardly surprising, given that the late 1930s were a high point of communist oppression in Russia.

First, Nevsky is portrayed as the archetype of the "Party Man," common in this era of Soviet film. If you've seen the contemporaneous Chapayev (1934), about a Red hero of the Russian Civil War, you know what this is. Nevsky is dead-serious here, with ramrod-straight posture and a charismatic, intense, and order-barking voice. He has no time for romance or deep relationships; the Motherland is his only love, and he is wholeheartedly dedicated to the cause.

When Russians are called to fight for their land, the defense is not led by nobles, but rather by the common people, Marx's proletariat, the heroes of class struggle. Each tradesman offers his goods: "The spearmakers commit 5,000 spears!" "The blacksmiths will give 10,000 shirts of mail!" The scene works like a Five-Year Plan, a meticulous accounting of industrial output.

Further, and more interesting to those who are not "into" films, Nevsky is decidedly anti-western in a remarkably 1930s way. Eisenstein (or, more so perhaps, the censors who inevitably oversaw production) were blatantly wary of the possibility of a coming German invasion that might echo the one in the 1240s being portrayed by actors wielding wooden swords (despite the Molotov-Rippentrop Pact of 1939, which solidified nonaggression between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's USSR). As such, the Teutonic invaders are portrayed in ways that echo fascist Germany, with horned or sloping stormtrooper helmets, rigid, conformity-enforcing order, and even strange symbols that ring a vague bell.

priest with swastika mitre
Hmmm, now where have I seen the symbol on that hat before? The costume of a grotesque Catholic priest highlights anti-German sentiment. | Mosfilm

Reinforcing this idea is the portrayal of the Teutonic Knights as superstitious, ritualistic, and oppressive. The German army is constantly praying, chanting, and burning people at the stake. Religion is portrayed as something foreign, unsettling, and oppressive, true to Marxist form. This, of course, is overlooking the fact that medieval Russia, while of a different Christian strain from medieval Germany, was still very, very religious.

Religion in Alex Nevsky
But who built the churches in the background? Hooded German inquisitors subjugate Pskov. Note the ominous hanging noose at the top of the frame. | Mosfilm

It didn't take long for Nevsky to become a cultural icon, and just in time, as soldiers would soon be taking on German invaders once more. Some World War II propaganda directly quoted Eisenstein's closing speech from the film:

Soviet propaganda w Nevsky
"Those who come at us with the sword will be driven out by the sword!" World War II echoes the Teutonic invasion seven hundred years earlier. | Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library

Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky is undoubtedly a product of its time. This is a film from the 1930s for the 1930s. But it has so solidified the public consciousness of the historical Nevsky that even Russia's leaders allude to it, implying that it's a source of widespread cultural education, despite its dubious historicity. It's also free on YouTube (with subtitles, no less!), so you have no excuse not to watch it. Despite its age, it's held up surprisingly well.

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