“Rise Up in Arms, O Russian People!” – Alexander Nevsky reviewed
Posted by Kris Roman on February 14, 2009
Like many Americans who grew up in the twilight of the Cold War, my first memories of Sergei Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky come from the Tom Clancy novel Red Storm Rising. In Tom Clancy’s vision of World War III set in the 1980s, the Soviet Union broadcasts the film to stir up the Russian people just before the Red Army tanks start rolling into West Germany.
While young Russians still learn about Prince Alexander Nevsky in school, many of them are probably familiar with this name because of Russia’s own version of Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actorand star of popular action flicks like Moscow Heat. (Excerpt from Mr. Nevsky’s Russia Today TV interview aired in January 2007, spoken in his best Ah-nuld accent: “I didn’t want to play Russian bad guys in Hollywood. I wanted to play a Russian action hero. I say let the Polish and Czech actors play Russian bad guys in Hollywood movies.”)
Today happens to be the 765th anniversary of the climactic battle on the frozen Lake Peipus depicted in the film. Two questions a modern viewer might ask are: has this example of historic propaganda from Josef Stalin’s favorite director aged well? And does it present any themes relevant to post-Soviet Russia?
The armor worn by the Riders of Rohan in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films seems reminiscent of the Russian knights in Alexander Nevsky
This is certainly an important question, since 21st century Russia does not appear likely to be threatened by any external aggressor, but by internal problems – separatist terrorism, corruption, and demographic decline. The latter issue more than any other contributes to insecurity among Russians about whether the Far East will remain Russian territory in the closing decades of this century, or whether it will (peacefully) become a part of China.
The plot of Alexander Nevsky is simple – in the 13th century, Russian peasants are being sold out by their corrupt boyars, who are quick to accomodate themselves to foreign occupiers, both the German Teutonic Knights and the Mongol Tartars. When a wounded knight rides into Novgorod to tell the people that Pskov has fallen to the Germans, his passionate appeals to defend the sacred soil of the Rus are mocked by the lords. “What is Rus?” they ask, in what for Eisenstein may have been a sly reference to Pontius Pilate’s cynical statement “What is truth?” from the Gospel of John. People of faith can take some comfort from the fact that even Stalin’s favorite director Eisenstein, in recasting Prince Nevsky as a New Soviet Man who happened to live in the 13th century, had to go back to the “greatest story ever told” for primary source material.
After a crowd of peasants gathers and demands that Alexander Nevsky lead them into battle against the invaders, the cowardly boyars are forced to send a delegation to the Prince. But before we see the delegation arrive at Prince Nevsky’s humble proletarian abode, Eisenstein cuts away to Pskov, where the Teutonic Knights have set up their base camp. For a film made in the 1930s, there is an extraordinary amount of graphic violence, as Russian women are sold into slavery while their babies are snatched away and thrown into the fire by jeering German soldiers. This scene clearly inspired the ultra-violent depiction of SS soldiers destroying a Belarusian village in the movie Come and See(1985). Steven Spielberg screened Come and See for his crew before shooting Schindler’s List andSaving Private Ryan. Thus, Eisenstein’s techniques have been passed down to audiences who have never watched a single Soviet film.
Besides depicting the Teutonic Knights as wearing very modern looking German steel helmets (the stalhelm, which supposedly was modeled after its medieval forerunner), the invaders also sport anachronistic swastikas in addition to their Brandenburger eagles. Eisenstein also threw in some anti-Catholic propaganda to please his patron Stalin, having one of the priests solemnly declare to the Teutonic Knights, “All who will not bow to Rome must be destroyed.” In this way, the Soviet Communist Party is bizarrely connected to the Russian Orthodox Church that it tried to replace. Historically, the Russian Orthodox Church has canonized many czars who fought bloody wars with Polish and Lithuanian Catholic monarchs.
After the audience is enraged by watching the baby-killing Teutonic Knights, Eisenstein cuts back to the scene at Prince Nevsky’s estate, where he is engaged in manual labor stitching fishing nets alongside the peasants. The delegation from Novgorod is fearful at first, but Alexander reassures them that they can defeat the Germans. “We must rouse the peasants!” he declares, and the Soviet People’s War begins with a thousand pitchforks beaten into bayonets, to the accompaniment of Sergei Prokofiev‘s rousing musical score.
The climax is the famous battle on the frozen Lake Peipus. The Teutonic Knights advance onto the ice, and at this point Prokofiev’s score dehumanizes the villains by making their movements mechanical, as if the horses were panzers. Before the battle, Nevsky cleverly splits his army into two wings with the peasants swarming in from the rear. Naturally, the peasants overwhelming numbers, combined with the superb command of the benevolent father Nevsky (whose gaze in the final shot of the film is eerily reminiscent of Big Brother Stalin’s smile) crush the invaders. The Teutonic Knights and their pawns beat a hasty retreat, only to be literally swallowed up by the Russian countryside as the ice gives way beneath their heavy armor and horses.
Shortly before Alexander Nevsky was to be screened in 1939, Stalin had his crony Molotov sign a pactwith Hitler’s foreign minister Ribbentrop. The Baltic States (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia) that had enjoyed a brief independence were occupied by the Red Army, along with eastern Poland. Soviet filmgoers did not get to see Alexander Nevsky until the Axis armies invaded on June 22, 1941.
Although Eisenstein was raised as a Russian Orthodox Christian, Stalin still viewed the great director as a Jew. Many of Eisenstein’s fellow artists became victims of Stalin’s anti-Semitism and paranoia. Eisenstein’s later works, including Ivan the Terrible Parts II and IIII, depicted Stalin’s personality in the guise of the aging and increasingly paranoid Czar. Soviet censors recognized this depiction in Ivan Grozny and censored the film until well after Stalin’s death.
Oddly enough, Eisenstein’s experience learning his craft in 1920s Hollywood included stopovers in Mexico and Texas. The Western influences that could have made Eisenstein an object of suspicion during Stalin’s purges also made him very valuable to the nascent Soviet film industry, and thus, the State. Nonetheless, what Eisenstein learned in Golden Age Hollywood and expanded on in Russia made his work an inspiration to filmmakers around the world today.