Alexander Nevsky, a film from Russia, directed by Sergei Eisenstein.
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Aleksandr Nevsky
Russia - 1938
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997


An intentionally epic retelling of the pivotal 13th Century conflict between Russia and the Teutonic knights, Aleksandr Nevsky is rich in propaganda. Set in the difficult year of 1242, Russia is beset by invaders on all sides. In the East the Mongol hordes are making great inroads into the motherland, being only temporarily held in check with bribes. From the West the religious order of the Teutonic knights is cutting a swathe through the countryside, barely breaking stride as city after city falls. Coming together in a type of pincer fashion, only Novgorod is left free after Pskov falls to the enemy.

In the fields Prince Alexander Nevsky (Nikolai Cherkassov) recuperates with his men, fresh from defeating the Swedes (on the River Neva). Content to co-exist with the Tartars, he realises that the greatest threat to Russia comes from Germany; their other enemies can wait awhile. However, it's only when Pskov is taken in brutal fashion that he decides to engage with the knights - assuming that Novgorod wants his assistance. Inside the city the mood is less then calm, with the populace being unsure whether to bargain or fight. Fortunately Domash (N.N. Arski), a nobleman, takes a stand and announces that they will unite under the Prince's command.

This is welcome news for firm friends Vassily Buslai (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo Olexich (Alexander Abrikossov); they're going to use the battle to decide who gets the hand in marriage of beautiful Olga (V.S. Ivasbeva). Hurried preparations are made, with townsfolk like Master Armourer Ignat (Dmitri Orlov) handing out weapons to the newly conscripted army of peasants. The clock is ticking as the Master of the Teutonic Order (V.L. Ersbov) draws ever closer, aided by the treasonous knowledge of Tverdillo (S. Blinnikov), the ex-Mayor of Pskov. After the atrocities committed in his city you'd think that he would do all he could to destroy the knights; perhaps he thinks that they'll be the winning side?

Held in high regard by audiences world-wide for its climatic battle, which takes up half the running time, Aleksandr Nevsky is a film of extremes. Put together in the immediate pre-war era, Sergei Eisenstein found himself in a delicate waltz of compromise with Stalin. In return for directing a potent but straightforward story, one that would open the eyes of the population to the German menace, Eisenstein was allowed access to numerous rewards. Firstly, since his career was on the decline, this production gave Eisenstein a definite winner; with Stalin's weight behind it the movie could hardly fail. Secondly, free access was provided to Soviet Army troops during filming, proving invaluable to the creation of realistic hand-to-hand combat. Thirdly, Prokofiev was eager to work with Eisenstein, beginning a lengthy and fruitful collaboration between the two. Eisenstein's masterstroke was to choose a tale of the Medieval era; Aleksandr Nevsky is not obviously a cry of caution against Hitler, yet the signs are there for those who look.

A significant problem for Aleksandr Nevsky is that because the arduous battle is so stunning in its impact, the remainder of the movie lies in shadow. Here the story is uneven in tone and execution, veering from tension to boredom, partially in response to an underlying flaw - the central characters, those that remain visible during the fighting. For a start it is difficult to identify and empathise with these people and their situation, so removed is their struggle for existence. Then, to reinforce the barrier, the subtle textures of their personalities are ground down by the rough manner in which they are played. Only Cherkassov emerges from the melee with an outstanding performance, bringing both a deep introspection and a flair for leadership to the Prince. From the rest of the cast, Okhlopkov and Abrikossov provide a nice line in both comic relief and romance (a welcome diversion to the death and misery elsewhere).

Where Aleksandr Nevsky shines, however, is in its powerful synthesis of Eisenstein's images and Prokofiev's score. During the battle, indeed throughout the rest of the film, Aleksandr Nevsky paints a highly believable picture of Medieval society; the clothes are rough and functional, the buildings either solid towers or ramshackle huts and the weapons bluntly deadly. When Prokofiev's vibrant vocal and symphonic instrumental pieces are added, in harmony, the viewer is stubbornly drawn within the ebb and flow of the troops. With the camera plunged into the heart of the action, the awesome scale of the slaughter cannot be ignored. The minuses are that on many prints the soundtrack has been abused beyond repair, muddying the clear arc of the score, while the subtitles are worse than useless. Although, ideally, such technical faults should not dilute a film's impact, Aleksandr Nevsky is badly wounded by these; a decent print is highly recommended. When acquired, sit back and absorb Eisenstein's attempt to rouse the pre-war populace into a patriotic frenzy.

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