Alexander Nevsky Review

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With 13th-century Russia under attack from both the Teutons and the Tartars, the Prince of Nevsky assembles an army and confronts the Germans knights at Lake Peipus.


Returning to film-making after six years of inactivity, Sergei Eisenstein was keen to put into practice theories he had been developing since the arrival of sound. In his silent masterpieces, Eisenstein had championed the cause of the mass hero and explored the cinematic and political potential of montage. But, Alexander Nevsky saw him focus on a single, iconic figure, while also embracing the technique known as mise-en-scène, in which meaning was conveyed by composition in depth within the frame rather than the juxtaposition of colliding images.

Eisenstein didn't wholly abandon his montagist past, however, as he called his integration of sound and image `vertical montage'. By combining visuals more indebted than previously to art and literature with Prokofiev's magisterial score, Eisenstein aimed to arouse emotional as much as intellectual patriotism and, so, while the famous Battle of the Ice primarily had propagandist purposes, it's also impossibly poetic and, therefore, makes an even more indelible impact.  

Although the film ostensibly resembled a traditional movie narrative, this was still very much a revolutionary work. The notional romantic subplot was subordinated to the grander notion of sacrifice for the Motherland and Eisenstein shunned Hollywood characterisation and kept the viewer concentrated on his nationalist themes by employing symbolic types rather than identifiable individuals.  

The obvious exception, however, is Nevsky himself. Clearly modelled on Stalin, he's a man of the people, who is first seen fishing and retains his common touch in all his dealings with his soldiers, who are themselves frequently presented in heroic poses that gave the populace a stake in a picture that was essentially designed to bolster Stalin's cult of personality.

 Not surprisingly, the Kremlin was delighted with the film. But, within months of its release, it was shelved, as anti-German rhetoric became unexpectedly inappropriate after Stalin stunned Europe by forging the Pact of Steel with his implacable enemy, Adolf Hitler.

Eisentein's character portrait is an example of his aesthetic portrayal of socio-political concerns whilst betraying some occasional emotional depth.