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'smother)
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 afilm theorist. There have been many film critics who became directors; the French NewWave is full of them--François Truffaut, Jean Luc Godard, and so on. Film scholars andhistorians such as Peter Bogdanovich have also become directors. But, Eisenstein was oneof the few theorists who also made films, thus assuring that the impact of his intellect wasfelt on both the page and the screen. He made films out of his theories, and the result foreverchanged the cinema.

Eisenstein is know best for being the director who introduced the theory ofmontage, which is so taken for granted to today that we forget just howrevolutionary it was in the 1920s when, despite the advances of D.W. Griffith, many moviesstill looked like filmed stageplays. As employed his classic silent films Strike(1924), Battleship Potemkin (1925), and October (1927), Eisenstein'stheory of montage editing to create meaning by the linking and, more importantly, thejuxtaposition of different images introduced a new dimension to the language of film thatforever changed it. Eisenstein theorized different categories of montage--metric, rhythmic,tonal, overtonal, and intellectual--which he utilized in his films to great effect, bothaesthetically and politically. He was one of the first filmmakers to truly understand thatpowerful meaning and political ideology could reside in the collusion of images, notnecessarily within the images themselves.

Yet, despite his brilliance and his great success as a Soviet filmmaker renowned throughoutthe world, the 1930s were a terrible decade for Eisenstein. He traveled abroad in the UnitedStates and attempted to make a film about Mexico in 1930, Que Viva Mexico, butfunding was pulled out at the last minute and the film was never completed. He foundhimself increasing persecuted by the despotic Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union, which didalways appreciate his collectivist art or his genius; Stalin simply wanted propaganda filmsthat 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, in1936, his use of naturalistic photography and religious iconography so infuriated Stalin thatthe film was taken away from him and allegedly destroyed.

Thus, it is not surprising that Eisenstein's next film, Alexander Nevsky, was aperfect example of the historical epic as nationalistic propaganda (which differed from hisearlier films, which were socialist rather than nationalist). His life literally depended onpleasing 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 acomplete work of art that also functioned as a rallying cry for a burgeoning socialist nationunder constant threat from fascism in the form of Nazi Germany. Eisenstein, working for thefirst time with sound, employed a beautiful score by Sergei Prokofiev, who had also been inexile throughout the 1930s, that functions as both support and counterpoint to his montageof exquisitely framed images.

Using thematic devices borrowed from traditions of folklore, the film tells the heroic story ofthe titular character, Alexander Nevsky (Nikolai Cherkasov), a 13th-century warrior princewho drove the invading Germans out of Russia. His name, "Nevsky," came from the famehe earned as a military leader who defeated invading Swedish forces at the mouth of theNeva River in 1240. However, when the film opens in 1242, Alexander is essentially livingin 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 intoRussia. As the film was made before Stalin signed a nonaggression pact with Adolf Hitler in1939, the Germans are portrayed as the most vicious sort. Dressed in armor that includesbucket-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 Russianchildren 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 early20th century is plain to see, which is why Stalin banned Alexander Nevsky aftersigning the nonaggression pact. He was aware of just how powerful the film was, not onlyin 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 hemarshaled 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 Battleon 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 "theaudio-visual aspect of Alexander Nevsky achieves its most complete fusion." TheBattle on the Ice is an incredible example of how the combination of image and music canevoke deep and varied emotions; it is a masterpiece of matching both concordant anddiscordant visuals and sounds. Eisenstein's careful compositions are matched to Prokofiev'sinspired musical score to create a sequence that is both horrifying and comical, while alwaysemphasizing Alexander's (and thus the Soviet Union's) nationalist fervor and resilience evenunder the most dire circumstances.

In Alexander Nevsky, Eisenstein proved once again that he could bring out hisown 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 againthat his brilliance could not be fully muted.

AlexanderNevsky: Eisenstein: The Sound Years Three-DiscBoxSet
Alexander Nevsky is available as part of theCriterion Collection's three-disc DVD box set, Eisenstein: The Sound Years,which also includes Ivan the Terrible Part I and Ivan the Terrible PartII.
AudioDolby 1.0 Monaural
Supplements Audioessay by film scholar David Bordwell
Musical Montage: The Eisenstein/Prokofiev Partnership: multimedia essay byRussell 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 PintoSimon
Collection of newspaper articles and essay on Bezhin Meadow
Drawings and production stills
Restoration demonstration
DistributorThe CriterionCollection / Home Vision
SRP$79.95 (3-DiscBox Set)

A great deal of work has gone into restoringAlexander 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-mmcomposite fine-grain master positive, the image is sharp and clear throughout, with excellentcontrast and great detail. The film's beautiful visual images are brought out in the fineshadings of gray and the strong whites and blacks. The image does show its age from timeto time, and despite having been digitally restored, there are still plenty of specks, nicks, aswell as the occasional disruptive tear that could not be corrected without leaving visibleartifacts. Grain is evident, especially in the expansive shots that show a great deal of sky, butit 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. AsDavid Merritt points out in his multimedia essay on the score and soundtrack included in thesupplementary portion of the disc, the soundtrack for Alexander Nevsky wasrecorded on "arguably the worst sound system available in any major film-producing countryin the world" thanks to Stalin's insistence on using homemade products that were theequivalent of what U.S. filmmakers were using a decade earlier. (Merritt also notes that thereis some evidence to support that the film's soundtrack was never meant to be final, that itwas only a rehearsal track.) Thus, the fact that Prokofiev's magnificent score doesn't soundas rich and thunderous as it probably should is not only a result of the soundtrack beingmore 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 canpossibly imagine it sounding, despite its limitations. There is some audible hissing from timeto time, but it is nothing unexpected of a film of this age.

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

Russell Merritt contributes a 23-minute multimedia essay on the collaboration betweendirector 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 essentiallya short documentary composed of both still images and moving film with Merritt'svoice-over providing the information. Merritt focuses on many aspects of the fruitfulcollaboration, but the most interesting aspect of his discussion is the influence of WaltDisney on the sound design of Alexander Nevsky.

One of the most extensive supplemental sections on this DVD has nothing to do withAlexander Nevsky, but rather on Eisenstein's ill-fated first sound film, 1936'sBezhin 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 thebeginning and end of each shot in the film (this was a routine practice for Eisenstein) that areelaborated with music and intertitles. Despite being basically static in nature, thisreconstruction is deeply engrossing, which is strong proof of the power of Eisenstein'scompositions. The reconstruction is augmented by on-set photographs by Jay Ledya, anAmerican who studied under Eisenstein; an essay by cultural historian and documentaryfilmmaker Elena Pinto Simon, "From the Storehouse of Creation: Thoughts on a LostMasterwork," which is a revised version of an introduction written for a 1989 exhibit of JayLedya's work; and a handful of newspaper articles and essays by Eisenstein and otherspublished 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 restorationdemonstration that provides before-and-after examples from the film.

©2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (4)

James Kendrick

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