After spending the last three weeks watching and doing researching on animated cartoons, today I felt ready to go off on a tangent and try something different. While browsing through Laser Craze today, I came across Sergei Eisenstein's famous Alexander Nevsky, a film I've been meaning to get to for a while. Why not, I decided, and took it out.
Suffice to say, I was not disappointed in the least. Here is a saga set on a scale truly worthy of the term "epic," with one of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed and even some attempts at human drama (which was never Eisenstein's strong suit). The buildup to the Battle on the Ice is fascinating, especially one scene where the Teutonic warriors sweep the Russian defenders away like the waters of a flood, and the great confrontation itself is one of the most thrilling, exciting cinematic moments I've seen in a long time.
Of course, with Eisenstein, politics and cinema were natural bedfellows, and his Marxist philosophies show up here as well. Although the story and the direction are his, the film gives equal credit to two people chosen by Stalin himself to watch Eisenstein and make sure his movie followed true Stalinist motives. (Stalin never trusted anyone, but especially not Eisenstein after his trip to Mexico, where he feared that the filmmaker had been somehow corrupted by Western ideas.) This is a true black-and-white movie, not only in the pictures and scenes (which are breathtakingly beautiful) but in the characters themselves, who are either pure good or totally evil.
The story, like all of Eisenstein's films, is designed as propaganda, and in this case the movie aims for patriotism and loyalty. Nazi Germany was threatening the Soviet Union when the film was made in 1938, and while the villains of the movie are Teutonic Germans of the year 1248, the resemblance between them and the Nazis is deliberate. The knights even wear cross insignia on their left arms, where Nazi soldiers had their swastika armbands. What's more, they're dressed entirely in white and hooded, in a fashion similar to the Ku Klux Klan in The Birth of a Nation, and they perform such evil deeds as hanging prisoners of war and tossing babies into fire pits. They're the bad guys - there's no doubt about that.
Meanwhile, the Russians are a poor folk, but they're brave. In their hour of need, they ignore the directives of their governors (who want to buy the Germans off with food, and even mention signing a peace treaty) and take up arms against the enemy. In a completely un- Hollywood fashion (this is a compliment), the women don chain mail and take up swords, where they fight alongside the men. The people choose Prince Alexander Nevsky as their leader, a tall, handsome fellow who bears a noticeable resemblance to Christ - hint, hint.
Actually, the use of religious symbols in the movie is interesting in itself. Eisenstein was an atheist, and his portrayal of religion as a tool of the oppressors (the Germans travel with priests who bless the troops before they slaughter innocent civilians) makes no qualms in portraying his contempt of religion.
I mention the plot in this tone of voice because, like most propaganda films, Alexander Nevsky is extremely obvious. Eisenstein may have mastered the scientific art of "montage" (manipulating the emotions of the audience through the use of editing), but his use of symbolism for the Marxist dialectic seems crude when one grows up watching American television commercials. Of all of his successors, Madison Avenue has followed his footsteps more than anyone else; they've taken his theories and brought them to a level that even he would have to see to believe.
But any weaknesses in the plot of the movie pale alongside Eisenstein's absolutely stunning direction. The entire second half of this 107-minute film is the Battle on the Ice, where thousands of warriors clash with swords and spears, and where the tide of battle turns from one moment to the next. The suspense of the German charge, as the warriors appear in the distance and move directly towards the camera, their pace increasing faster and faster as the seconds flow by, is one of the great moments in movie history (it was obviously borrowed by Laurence Olivier for his Henry V), and the movie reaches its height as we see the clash of these two great forces.
Even here, however, Eisenstein makes it clear that the true victory belongs to the people. Alexander himself is little more than a figurehead, a point for the people to rally around; he does little more than order the troops into battle. The film's greatest moments are those that portray the Russian people as the heroes, not any particular person but the masses in general. Even the end of the film works on this theme, by blaming the ringleaders for the trouble and proclaiming the innocence of soldiers "forced to fight."
As a whole, then, Alexander Nevsky is an exercise in the true power of filmmaking. It doesn't try to state any grand, humanistic morals; rather, it aims to be an exciting film that fires the emotions and keeps the audience mesmerized from the beginning to the end. At this, it succeeds grandly, and it unquestionably deserves a place among the greatest epic adventure films of all time. Its grandeur wouldn't be surpassed until Akira Kurosawa made Seven Samurai fifteen years later. It's certainly one of Eisenstein's most enjoyable movies.
(Footnote: When Stalin and Hitler signed a non-aggression pact in 1939, the film was suppressed because of its anti-German statement. However, after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, it was re- released to Russian audiences, where it became very popular.)