Alexander Nevsky (film)

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Alexander Nevsky
Alexander Nevsky Poster.jpg
DVD cover
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein
Dmitri Vasilyev
Written by Sergei Eisenstein
Pyotr Pavlenko
Starring Nikolai Cherkasov
Nikolai Okhlopkov
Andrei Abrikosov
Music by Sergei Prokofiev
Cinematography Eduard Tisse
Production
company
Release dates
  • 1 December 1938 (1938-12-01)
Running time 111 minutes
Country Soviet Union
Language Russian

Alexander Nevsky (Russian: Алекса́ндр Не́вский) is a 1938 historical drama film directed by Sergei Eisenstein. It depicts the attempted invasion of Novgorod in the 13th century by the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire and their defeat by Prince Alexander, known popularly as Alexander Nevsky (1220–1263).

Eisenstein made the film in association with Dmitri Vasilyev and with a script co-written with Pyotr Pavlenko; they were assigned to ensure that Eisenstein did not stray into "formalism" and to facilitate shooting on a reasonable timetable. It was produced by Goskino via the Mosfilm production unit, with Nikolai Cherkasov in the title role and a musical score by Sergei Prokofiev, Alexander Nevsky was the first and most popular of Eisenstein's three sound films. In 1941 Eisenstein, Pavlenko, Cherkasov and Abrikosov were awarded the Stalin Prize for the film.

In 1978 the film was included in the world's 100 best motion pictures according to the opinion poll conducted by the Italian publishing house "A. Mondadori".[1]

Plot[edit]

The Teutonic Knights invade and conquer the city of Pskov with the help of the traitor Tverdilo and massacre its population. In the face of resistance by the boyars and merchants of Novgorod (urged on by the monk Ananias), Nevsky rallies the common people of Novgorod and in a decisive Battle of the Ice, on the surface of the frozen Lake Peipus or Chudskoe, they defeat the Teutonic knights. The story ends in the retaken Pskov where the ordinary foot-soldiers are set free, the surviving Teutonic knights will be held for ransom and Tverdilo is swarmed over by the vengeful people (and supposedly torn to pieces).

A subplot throughout the film concerns Vasili Buslai and Gavrilo Oleksich, two famous warriors from Novgorod and friends, who become commanders of the Novgorod forces and who engage in a contest of courage and fighting skill throughout the Battle on the Ice in order to decide which of them will win the hand of Olga Danilovna, a Novgorod maiden whom both of them are courting. Vasilisa, the daughter of a boyar of Pskov killed by the Germans, joins the Novgorod forces as a front-line soldier, and she and Buslai fight side by side (which makes a strong impression on Buslai); she also personally slays the traitor Ananias. After both Gavrilo and Buslai have been seriously wounded, Buslai publicly states that neither he nor Gavrilo was the bravest in battle: that honor goes to Vasilisa, and that after her came Gavrilo. Thus Gavrilo and Olga are united, while Buslai chooses Vasilisa as his bride-to-be (with her unspoken consent).

Cast[edit]

1930s political context[edit]

Alexander (Nikolai Cherkasov) declines a Mongol ambassador's offer to join the Golden Horde

Eisenstein made Alexander Nevsky, his first completed film in 10 years, during the Stalinist era, at a time of somewhat strained relations between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The film contains elements of obvious allegory that reflect the political situation between the two countries at the time of production. Some types of helmets worn by the Teutonic infantry resemble mock-ups of Stahlhelms from World War I. In the first draft of the Alexander Nevsky script, swastikas even appeared on the invaders' helmets.[2] The film portrays Alexander as a folk hero and shows him bypassing a fight with the Mongols, his old foes, in order to face the more dangerous enemy.

The film also conveys highly anti-clerical and anti-Catholic messages.[3] The knights' bishop's miter is adorned with swastikas, while religion plays a minor role on the Russian side, being present mostly as a backdrop in the form of Novgorod's St. Nicholas Cathedral and the clerics with their icons during the victorious entry of Nevsky into the city after the battle.

The film stemmed from a literary scenario entitled Rus, written by Pyotr Pavlenko, a Soviet novelist who conformed to socialist realist orthodoxy. The authorities could rely on Pavlenko, in his role of "consultant", to report any wayward tendencies on Eisenstein's part.[4]

Alexander Nevsky stresses as a central theme the importance of the common people in saving Russia, while portraying the nobles and merchants as "bourgeoisie" and enemies of the people who do nothing, a motif that was heavily employed.[5]

Teutonic knights take over Pskov

While shooting the film, Eisenstein published an article in the official newspaper of record Izvestia entitled "Alexander Nevsky and the Rout of the Germans". He drew a specific parallel between Nevsky and Stalin.[6] As a result, the Kremlin requested an advance screening and, without Eisenstein being consulted, his assistants showed the footage to the dictator. During the process of this screening, one of the reels, which featured a scene depicting a brawl among the populace of Novgorod, disappeared.[7] Whether it was left behind in the editing room inadvertently or whether Stalin saw the footage and objected to it, the filmmakers decided to destroy the reel permanently, since it had not received Stalin's explicit approval.[7]

The picture was released in December 1938, and became a great success with audiences: on 15 April 1939, Semen Dukelsky - the chairman of the State Committee for Cinematography - reported that it had already been viewed by 23,000,000 people and was the most popular of the films made in recent times.[8]

After 23 August 1939, when the USSR signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, which provided for non-aggression and collusion between Germany and the Soviet Union, Alexander Nevsky was removed from circulation. But the situation reversed dramatically on 22 June 1941 after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, and the film rapidly returned to Soviet and western screens.

Style[edit]

Alexander Nevsky is less experimental in its narrative structure than Eisenstein's previous films: it tells one story with a single narrative arc and focuses on one main character. The special effects and cinematography were some of the most advanced at the time.[9]

The film climaxes in the half-hour Battle of the Ice, propelled by Prokofiev's ominous, rousing, triumphant musical narrative, a sequence that has served as a model for epic movie battles ever since (e.g., Henry V, Spartacus, The Empire Strikes Back). This climactic set piece was the first to be filmed and, since it was shot during a blazing hot summer on a location outside Moscow, cinematographer Eduard Tisse had to take extraordinary steps to render a wintry landscape, including: use of a filter to suggest winter light, painting all the trees light blue and dusting them with chalk, creating an artificial horizon out of sand, and constructing simulated ice sheets out of asphalt and melted glass, supported by floating pontoons that were deflated on cue so that the ersatz ice sheets would shatter under the weight of the Teutonic knights according to pre-cut patterns.[7]

Musical score[edit]

Sergei Prokofiev
Video of performance of "Song about Alexander Nevsky", Section 2 of Alexander Nevsky cantata. Length: 2 min, 56 sec

The film was the first of Eisenstein's dramatic films to use sound. (The earlier Bezhin Meadow, had also used sound, but production was shut down and most of the finished scenes were destroyed.) The film's score was composed by Sergei Prokofiev, who later reworked the score into a concert cantata. The creation of Alexander Nevsky was a collaboration in the fullest sense of the word: some of the film was shot to Prokofiev's music and some of Prokofiev's music was composed to Eisenstein's footage.[10] Prokofiev viewed the film's rough cut as the first step in composing its inimitable score. The strong and technically innovative collaboration between Eisenstein and Prokofiev in the editing process resulted in a match of music and imagery that remains a standard for filmmakers. Valery Gergiev, the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, has stated his opinion that Prokofiev's music for this film is "the best ever composed for the cinema".[11]

Film/concerts[edit]

In the 1990s a new, cleaner print became available. A number of symphony orchestras gave performances of Prokofiev's cantata, synchronized with a showing of the new print. The New York Philharmonic,[12] the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra[13] are five such ensembles. The concerts were quite popular, because Prokofiev's music is badly degraded by the original soundtrack recording, which suffers from extreme distortion and limited frequency response, as well as cuts to the original score to fit scenes that had already been shot. The cantata not only restored cuts but considerably expanded parts of the score.

New edition of the film[edit]

In 1995, a new edition of the film was issued on VHS and laserdisc, for which Prokofiev's score was entirely re-recorded in hi-fi digital stereo by Yuri Temirkanov conducting the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, although the dialogue portions of the soundtrack were left unchanged. This enabled a new generation to experience Eisenstein's film and Prokofiev's score in high fidelity, rather than having to settle for the badly recorded musical portion that had existed since the film's original release. There is no version of the re-recorded score available on DVD.

In popular culture[edit]

Several films have scenes strongly influenced by the Battle of Lake Peipus, including Doctor Zhivago (1965), Billion Dollar Brain (1967), Conan the Barbarian (1982 film), Mulan (1998), and King Arthur (2004). Scenes from the film were later incorporated into the American propaganda film The Battle of Russia (1943).

In Star Wars (1977), when Darth Vader first appears, he bends over the corpses of Rebels like one of the Teutonic Knights in Alexander Nevsky after the storming of Pskov.

The Tom Clancy novel Red Storm Rising (1986) depicted two American intelligence officers watching Alexander Nevsky (pirating the Soviet state television satellite feed) on the eve of World War III. The officers take note of an improved sound track as well as the anti-German sentiment and strong sense of Russian (as opposed to Soviet) nationalism. The next day, as part of a plot to split the NATO alliance politically, KGB agents detonated a bomb in the Kremlin and arrested a West German sleeper agent on charges of terrorism. While airing Nevsky immediately prior to the bombing may have been intended to inflame the Soviet population in favor of war with the West, the timing of the two events led the Americans to suspect the plot.

Prokofiev's music from Alexander Nevsky accompanies the battle scene in Woody Allen's comedy Love and Death (1975).

Ralph Bakshi's 1977 film Wizards rotoscoped footage of the ice-battle scene from Nevsky to create parts of Blackwolf's mutant army.

Certain scenes in John Millius’s fantasy epic Conan the Barbarian (1982 film) were influenced by Alexander Nevsky. The introduction of Thulsa Doom and his henchmen after the destruction of Conan’s village is reminiscent of the depiction of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights and his fellow knights after the conquest of Pskov. With its score and choreography, the final ride and attack of the Riders of Doom against Conan is similar to the Teutonic Order's cavalry approaching Nevsky in the Battle of Lake Peipus. Also, the Riddle of Steel, a major theme of the Conan film, is already mentioned by Nevsky during the final Battle of the Ice.[14]

The film makes a brief appearance in John Millius’s 1984 war film Red Dawn, too. When the protagonists return to their hometown occupied by the Soviet army, they walk by the "Serf" town cinema. The theater marquee says "All Saturday Come, Alexander Nevsky, Admission Free."

In 2012, a graphic novel adaptation of the film, entitled Nevsky: Hero of the People, was scheduled for publication, written by Ben McCool, with art by Mario Guevara and published by IDW Publishing.[15]

References[edit]

  1. ^ [1] Review on DVD cover by RUSCICO
  2. ^ Unspecified (1998) and two elaborated swastikas do appear on the miter of the bishop of the Holy Roman Empire, who supervises his fighting German lackeys from just behind the lines. Eisenstein's Symphonic Vision. In Alexander Nevsky [DVD liner notes]. Chatsworth: Image Entertainment.
  3. ^ Tatara, Paul. "Review - Alexander Nevsky" TCM.com
  4. ^ Goodwin, James (1993). Eisenstein, Cinema, and History. Urbana IL: University of Illinois Press. p. 159. ISBN 0-252-01964-4. 
  5. ^ Richard Overy, The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, p558 ISBN 0-393-02030-4
  6. ^ Bergan, Ronald (1999). Eisenstein: a life in conflict. New York: Overlook Press. p. 305. ISBN 978-0-87951-924-7. 
  7. ^ a b c Hoberman, J. (2001). Alexander Nevsky -- Commentary to Criterion Collection DVD. New York: Criterion Collection. 
  8. ^ Kyril Anderson. Kremlevskij Kinoteatr. 1928–1953: Dokumenty. Rospen Press (2005). ISBN 978-5-8243-0532-6. p. 539.
  9. ^ A. Tommassini, "MUSIC IN REVIEW; Alexander Nevsky" New York Times October 21, 2006. "To fortify popular sentiment against the Germans, Soviet officials asked Eisenstein to make a film commemorating the victory of the Russian prince Alexander Nevsky over the marauding Knights of the Teutonic Order from Germany in 1242."
  10. ^ "Sergei Prokofiev". International Film: Other Traditions, Other Practices. Film Reference -- Advameg, Inc. Retrieved 10 October 2012. 
  11. ^ "Concert Programme for the 2011–2012 season". The Cambridge Philharmonic Society. Retrieved 10 October 2012. 
  12. ^ A. Tommassini, "MUSIC IN REVIEW; Alexander Nevsky" New York Times October 21, 2006. "the home of the New York Philharmonic has been temporarily turned into a movie house to present screenings of Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 epic, Alexander Nevsky."
  13. ^ http://classical.broadwayworld.com/article/Marin-Alsop-Leads-BSO-in-Music-from-Film-ALEXANDER-NEVSKY-111-13-20121218 retrieved 11 Jan 2013
  14. ^ Alexander Nevsky, complete film, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mr3S6ItLMTo
  15. ^ [2]

External links[edit]