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Alexander Nevsky
Director: Sergei Eisenstein & Dmitri Vasilyev
Screenplay: Sergei Eisenstein & Pyotr Pavlenko
Stars: Nikolai Cherkasov (Prince Alexander Nevsky), Nikolai Okhlopkov (Vasili Buslaj), Andrei Abrikosov (Gavrilo Oleksic), Dmitri Orlov (Igant), Vasili Novikov (Pavsha, Governor of Pskov), N. Arsky (Domash Tverdislavich), Varvara Massalitinova (Buslaj's mother)
MPAA Rating:NR
Year of Release: 1938
Country: Soviet Union
Alexander Nevsky Poster

The Soviet genius Sergei Eisenstein was the rarest of all filmmakers: one who was also a film theorist. There have been many film critics who became directors; the French New Wave is full of them--François Truffaut, Jean Luc Godard, and so on. Film scholars and historians such as Peter Bogdanovich have also become directors. But, Eisenstein was one of the few theorists who also made films, thus assuring that the impact of his intellect was felt on both the page and the screen. He made films out of his theories, and the result forever changed the cinema.

Eisenstein is know best for being the director who introduced the theory of montage, which is so taken for granted to today that we forget just how revolutionary it was in the 1920s when, despite the advances of D.W. Griffith, many movies still looked like filmed stageplays. As employed his classic silent films Strike (1924), Battleship Potemkin (1925), and October (1927), Eisenstein's theory of montage editing to create meaning by the linking and, more importantly, the juxtaposition of different images introduced a new dimension to the language of film that forever changed it. Eisenstein theorized different categories of montage--metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal, and intellectual--which he utilized in his films to great effect, both aesthetically and politically. He was one of the first filmmakers to truly understand that powerful meaning and political ideology could reside in the collusion of images, not necessarily within the images themselves.

Yet, despite his brilliance and his great success as a Soviet filmmaker renowned throughout the world, the 1930s were a terrible decade for Eisenstein. He traveled abroad in the United States and attempted to make a film about Mexico in 1930, Que Viva Mexico, but funding was pulled out at the last minute and the film was never completed. He found himself increasing persecuted by the despotic Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union, which did always appreciate his collectivist art or his genius; Stalin simply wanted propaganda films that towed the party line and stuck rigorously to the dogmatic tenets of socialist realism. When Eisenstein attempted to make his first sound film, Bezhin Meadow, in 1936, his use of naturalistic photography and religious iconography so infuriated Stalin that the film was taken away from him and allegedly destroyed.

Thus, it is not surprising that Eisenstein's next film, Alexander Nevsky, was a perfect example of the historical epic as nationalistic propaganda (which differed from his earlier films, which were socialist rather than nationalist). His life literally depended on pleasing Stalin, and he succeeded mightily by employing the Stalinist emphasis on singular, larger-than-life heroes, rather than the collective efforts emphasized in his silent films.

Yet, the resulting film is not simply a piece of pro-Soviet nationalist ideology, but rather a complete work of art that also functioned as a rallying cry for a burgeoning socialist nation under constant threat from fascism in the form of Nazi Germany. Eisenstein, working for the first time with sound, employed a beautiful score by Sergei Prokofiev, who had also been in exile throughout the 1930s, that functions as both support and counterpoint to his montage of exquisitely framed images.

Using thematic devices borrowed from traditions of folklore, the film tells the heroic story of the titular character, Alexander Nevsky (Nikolai Cherkasov), a 13th-century warrior prince who drove the invading Germans out of Russia. His name, "Nevsky," came from the fame he earned as a military leader who defeated invading Swedish forces at the mouth of the Neva River in 1240. However, when the film opens in 1242, Alexander is essentially living in exile as a fisherman in a portion of Eastern Russia dominated by the Mongols.

Alexander is soon called back into service when German Teutons begin moving north into Russia. As the film was made before Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Adolf Hitler in 1939, the Germans are portrayed as the most vicious sort. Dressed in armor that includes bucket-like helmets to completely hide their faces, the Germans are depicted in nonhuman, mechanical terms. When they defeat the city of Pskov, they are shown amid the flattened, smoking ruins of the great city brutally slaughtering captured civilians and throwing Russian children in huge bonfires, scenes that still retain a great deal of shock value today.

The links between the German Teutons of the 13th century and Nazi Germany of the early 20th century is plain to see, which is why Stalin banned Alexander Nevsky after signing the nonaggression pact. He was aware of just how powerful the film was, not only in terms of its base characterization of the Germans as animals, but in its overall impact. Eisenstein was incapable of making a film that was not a complex work of art, and he marshaled all his filmmaking prowess for Alexander Nevsky, which is, narratively speaking, one of his simplest films.

The majority of attention paid to the film has focused on the extraordinary 30-minute Battle on the Ice sequence, in which Alexander's army faces the Germans on a frozen lake. According to Eisenstein in his book The Film Sense, it is in this scene that "the audio-visual aspect of Alexander Nevsky achieves its most complete fusion." The Battle on the Ice is an incredible example of how the combination of image and music can evoke deep and varied emotions; it is a masterpiece of matching both concordant and discordant visuals and sounds. Eisenstein's careful compositions are matched to Prokofiev's inspired musical score to create a sequence that is both horrifying and comical, while always emphasizing Alexander's (and thus the Soviet Union's) nationalist fervor and resilience even under the most dire circumstances.

In Alexander Nevsky, Eisenstein proved once again that he could bring out his own vision while working within the rigid constraints of Stalinism. Although he was exiled, publicly humiliated, and risked death for many years, Eisenstein proved time and time again that his brilliance could not be fully muted.

Alexander Nevsky: Eisenstein: The Sound Years Three-DiscBox Set
Alexander Nevsky is available as part of the Criterion Collection's three-disc DVD box set, Eisenstein: The Sound Years, which also includes Ivan the Terrible Part I and Ivan the Terrible Part II.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Audio Dolby 1.0 Monaural
Supplements Audio essay by film scholar David Bordwell
Musical Montage: The Eisenstein/Prokofiev Partnership: multimedia essay by Russell Merritt
Naum Kleiman's reconstruction of Eisenstein's unfinished Bezhin Meadow
Jay Leyda's photos from the set of Bezhin Meadow
"From the Storehouse of Creation: Thoughts on a Lost Masterwork" essay by Elena Pinto Simon
Collection of newspaper articles and essay on Bezhin Meadow
Drawings and production stills
Restoration demonstration
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision
SRP$79.95 (3-Disc Box Set)

A great deal of work has gone into restoring Alexander Nevsky's visual quality (some 300 hours of digital restoration work), and the results are quite impressive, given the existing state of the original elements. Transferred in high-definition in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio from a new 35-mm composite fine-grain master positive, the image is sharp and clear throughout, with excellent contrast and great detail. The film's beautiful visual images are brought out in the fine shadings of gray and the strong whites and blacks. The image does show its age from time to time, and despite having been digitally restored, there are still plenty of specks, nicks, as well as the occasional disruptive tear that could not be corrected without leaving visible artifacts. Grain is evident, especially in the expansive shots that show a great deal of sky, but it contributes to the image's natural, film-like appearance.

The Dolby 1.0 monaural soundtrack has also been restored, although it still sounds thin and somewhat tinny, which is hardly the fault of the transfer. As David Merritt points out in his multimedia essay on the score and soundtrack included in the supplementary portion of the disc, the soundtrack for Alexander Nevsky was recorded on "arguably the worst sound system available in any major film-producing country in the world" thanks to Stalin's insistence on using homemade products that were the equivalent of what U.S. filmmakers were using a decade earlier. (Merritt also notes that there is some evidence to support that the film's soundtrack was never meant to be final, that it was only a rehearsal track.) Thus, the fact that Prokofiev's magnificent score doesn't sound as rich and thunderous as it probably should is not only a result of the soundtrack being more than 60 years old, but it's never having been recorded properly in the first place. Having said all that, I will add that the soundtrack on this disc sounds as good as I can possibly imagine it sounding, despite its limitations. There is some audible hissing from time to time, but it is nothing unexpected of a film of this age.

David Bordwell, a professor of film studies at the University of Wisconsin and one of the preeminent film theorists working in the United States today, contributes an informative screen-specific audio essay. The majority of Bordwell's scholarly work has been formalist in nature, focusing on formal structures of narrative, editing, and composition, so it is no surprise that this is the main thrust of his commentary. He has studied Alexander Nevsky in great detail (he is the author of The Cinema of Eisenstein), and his discussion is both enjoyable and intellectually fascinating--it is a commentary with insight that truly adds to the experience of viewing the film by giving you an even deeper respect for what Eisenstein accomplished.

Russell Merritt contributes a 23-minute multimedia essay on the collaboration between director Sergei Eisenstein and composer Sergei Prokofiev adapted from his article "Recharging Alexander Nevsky: Tracking the Eisenstein-Prokofiev War-horse," which was originally published in 1995 in Film Quarterly. The essay is essentially a short documentary composed of both still images and moving film with Merritt's voice-over providing the information. Merritt focuses on many aspects of the fruitful collaboration, but the most interesting aspect of his discussion is the influence of Walt Disney on the sound design of Alexander Nevsky.

One of the most extensive supplemental sections on this DVD has nothing to do with Alexander Nevsky, but rather on Eisenstein's ill-fated first sound film, 1936's Bezhin Meadow. This section of this disc includes a 25-minute "reconstruction" of the destroyed film made by Naum Kleiman, curator of Moscow's Eisenstein Museum, and Sergei Yutkevich of Gosfilmofond in 1967. It is composed of still images taken from the beginning and end of each shot in the film (this was a routine practice for Eisenstein) that are elaborated with music and intertitles. Despite being basically static in nature, this reconstruction is deeply engrossing, which is strong proof of the power of Eisenstein's compositions. The reconstruction is augmented by on-set photographs by Jay Ledya, an American who studied under Eisenstein; an essay by cultural historian and documentary filmmaker Elena Pinto Simon, "From the Storehouse of Creation: Thoughts on a Lost Masterwork," which is a revised version of an introduction written for a 1989 exhibit of Jay Ledya's work; and a handful of newspaper articles and essays by Eisenstein and others published in the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s pertaining to Bezhin Meadow.

Finally, the disc contains a nice gallery of production sketches and a brief restoration demonstration that provides before-and-after examples from the film.

Overall Rating: (4)

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