Celluloid Histories I: Alexander Nevsky

Celluloid Histories I: Alexander Nevsky

Celluloid Histories is an ongoing series devoted to considering films (particularly their production, content and exhibition) within their specific historical context. It is less a review than a retrospective, engaging with the ways film and history often intertwine.

(music for reading)

            In late November of 1938, the film maker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein presented the final cut of his new historical drama Alexander Nevsky to eager Muscovite crowds. In attendance were many of the top officials of the ruling communist party, including the General Secretary and de facto leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin. One can imagine Eisenstein’s nervousness as the lights dimmed to reveal the opening shot of his first feature film in nearly a decade. One can also imagine his relief when, following the two-hour dive into Russia’s distant past, Stalin slapped the wild-haired forty-year old Latvian on the back and declared, in his usual blustery way, “Sergei, you’re a good Bolshevik!” The next year, this informal, yet crucial validation would be officiated by the awarding of the Order of Lenin to the director, the highest honor in all the Soviet Union.

Behind this somewhat cliché scene of the artist presenting his new work to a critical public was a storm of personal and societal conflict and disruption. Alexander Nevsky, an entertaining folk tale of good vs. evil, is in reality a film of two minds. On the surface, it is a 13th century tale of Russian militias fighting Germanic knights in the midst of what we now call the Northern Crusades. Dive below and one finds a prescient propagandistic fantasy of brave Russian citizens beating back the heavily armored Nazi blitz. Alexander Nevsky is an example of distortive effect politics and art can have on the past. Political prerogatives and aesthetic principals change the complex and little known history of medieval Novgorod (for Russia was not yet the massive nation-state it is today) into something wholly separate from the truth, less history than myth.

Nevsky Film Poster

            The history of Soviet film is closely tied to the state itself. With its distillation of complex meaning into easily interpretable images and plots, film (nearly as young as many of the revolutionaries overthrowing the old Tsarist order in the late 1910s and early 1920s) was quickly incorporated into the revolutionary movement, providing an outlet both for much needed escapism and for the spreading of communist ideology. In the silent era, where image was key and title cards could be easily translated and replaced, Soviet film was chiefly turned outwards, aiming to both validate the consolidating Soviet regime of Vladimir Lenin (through sentimental portrayals of the revolution) and to spread revolutionary communist fervor to the weakened capitalist democracies of postwar Europe.

Sergei Eisenstein led the charge in this regards, his experimental portrayals of recent revolutionary history like Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Strike (1925) finding appreciative global audiences to this day (if you have even the slightest interest in film in general, you have probably already seen Potemkin). Riding the success of these films, Eisenstein, accompanied by fellow director Grigori Aleksandrov and cinematographer Eduard Tisse (the true hero of Eisenstein’s films in my opinion), left Russia on a tour of Europe, the United States and Mexico, where he engaged with the bourgeois culture of the West and learned of the new sound technology that was rapidly transforming global cinema. After five years of experiments and failures, he returned to the Soviet Union and in 1935, began work on a new film assignment, Bezhin Meadow.

The Soviet Union Eisenstein returned to the mid-30’s was dramatically different from the one he led left in the ‘20s. Lenin was dead, Trotsky had fled and Joseph Stalin was in the process of bending the state to his whims. Idealism, revolutionary fervor and random violence had given way to paranoia, xenophobic nationalism and large-scale state-sponsored murder. Under Stalin, the fundamental aspects of Russian society were completely rewritten as industrialization and state terror were forced upon an agrarian and ethnically diverse population. Purges, famines and migrations altered the social makeup of the land and contributed to an atmosphere of fear and potential violence.

In this increasingly paranoid environment, Eisenstein’s long stay in the West aroused a large degree of suspicion in the increasingly powerful Soviet censor office. This, along with production difficulties, led to Bezhin Meadow being shut down, Eisenstein denounced and executive producer Boris Shumyatsky executed as a traitor. Keeping his head down, Eisenstein retreated to his home in Moscow, where he began work on one last chance to re-ingratiate himself with Stalin and thus, avoid the fate of his colleague Shumyatsky. Diving into Russian archives, Eisenstein, along with cowriter Pyotr Pavlenko, began to write a historical drama about a somewhat obscure Russian hero from the thirteenth century and his defeat of Teutonic knights on the icy shores of Lake Chudskoye.

Eisenstein and Pavlenko quickly noticed the similarities between their era of research and the events unfolding around them in 1937. By the mid-thirteenth century, the Russian people were divided between various city-states, including Kiev, Muscovy and in the north, the merchant city of Novgorod. Having avoided the initial thrust of the expanding Mongol Empire, which had left nearly every other major Russian city in ruins, Novgorod was thriving with Novgorodian merchants operating along the Volga and Dnieper rivers, as well as the Baltic Sea. However, by 1242 CE, the city had found itself surrounded by powerful and vicious enemies. To the north, economic penetration of Finland had brought Novogorod into conflict with the king of Sweden (the defeat of Swedish invaders by Alexander’s Russian army along the river Neva in 1240 CE gave him the moniker Nevksy). To the south and east, the western arm of the Mongol Empire (known as the Golden Horde) was consolidating authority over Russian lands and beginning to push into Catholic Europe. Most dire, from the west, a well-armed band of Catholic knights known as the Teutons had taken the pagan lands of Livonia (modern Estonia and Latvia) and were poised to continue their holy crusade against the Novgorodians, who were apparently the wrong kind of Christian.

The existential threat of the besieged city-state of Novgorod mirrored the political context of late 1930’s Russia. Still reeling from the self-imposed sadism of Stalinism, the U.S.S.R. now found itself caught between an expansionist, anti-Slav, anti-communist Nazi Germany and an imperial Japan that sought to bring all of Asia under its control. In the summer of 1938, as Alexander Nevsky began filming, the Soviet Union was already fighting an undeclared border war with Japan in eastern Siberia. Meanwhile, Hitler was busy annexing Austria and Czechoslovakia and opposing Soviet interests in the Spanish Civil War. Like Novgorod in 1242 CE, the U.S.S.R was surrounded and preparing to battle for its right to exist.


Given this environment of geopolitical desperation and Stalinist paranoia, Alexander Nevsky’s distortion of history comes into a much greater focus. The film follows a simple folk narrative: Alexander, the hero of Novgorod, is called back into action to defeat a powerful and evil force of invaders. The invaders are met in battle by a rag-tag army of Russians on the ice of Lake Chudskoye and through Russian bravery and the tactics of Alexander, are summarily defeated. Following the battle, Alexander celebrates with his people and then addressing the camera, gives the reason for this film’s existence: “Go and tell everyone in the foreign lands that Russia lives. He who comes to us as a guest, let him come with no reservation. But he who comes to us with a sword, shall die by the sword. On this stands Russia, and on this she shall stand forever.”

Flavoring this simple propagandistic folk narrative are contemporary touches which are not so much winking as screaming. The Germans are dressed in Nazi symbolism, from helmets with hands giving the Nazi salute to gloves with swastika-like print. The fact that these blond haired, heavily armored (a la Panzers) SS stand-ins literally throw Russian babies into bonfires suggest that even in the sound era, Eisenstein was not one for subtle metaphors. The handsome confidence of lead actor Nikolai Cherkasov (who would go on to play the title role in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible series) as well as the brilliant soundtrack by Sergei Prokofiev bring even greater filmic meaning to the fable, ascribing a specifically cinematic experience to what was in effect a minor battle in the history of a city-state which hasn’t existed in nearly five centuries.

Alexander Nevsky is a fascinating film forever moored to the place and time of its production. Unlike the two Ivan the Terrible films, it remains a somewhat obscure project in Sergei Eisenstein’s directorial portfolio, and has been shrugged off by many contemporary critics as merely a well-produced piece of Stalinist propaganda. To an extent, these analyses are correct: Stalin (who was a well-documented cinephile) clearly saw himself in the character of Alexander, and would go on to have a deeper involvement in the production of the Ivan movies (going so far as to decree the correct length of Cherkasov’s beard in Ivan the Terrible, Part II). Furthermore, the anti-Nazism would subject the film to banishment shortly after it was so well received when Stalin signed the non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939, and then a revival when Hitler broke that pact and film was once again brought in to rally the populace.

However, in writing this essay (a much more condensed version of one I wrote for a film history class) I have come to see Alexander Nevsky as not merely a cheap novelty for history buffs and propaganda enthusiasts (though I do enjoy it on both these levels), but also as a genuinely moving story of an idealistic director’s desire to explore the ever-growing existential threat in his world by turning an eye to a mythic past. Yes, Alexander Nevsky is a film designed to make you hate Nazis and feel pride in your Russian homeland (both of which are perfectly acceptable attitudes); however, it is also a thrilling pseudo-Hollywood epic, playing off Russian folk tales, the heroic narrative, gorgeous cinematography and the thrilling score of a brilliant composer to create a truly great film experience. As history, it says more about the mid-twentieth century than the mid-thirteenth; as film, it reveals the brilliance of a passionate crew of filmmakers, anxious to express themselves even under the restraints of a brutal regime.





Alexander Nevsky is available in the United States via the Criterion Collection, where it was released alongside Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1945) and Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1958). All three are worth a watch. For those interested in Soviet Cinema, I recommend Soviet Cinematography, 1918-1991: Ideological Conflict and Social Reality  by Dmitry and Vladimir Shlapentokh (1993). As for Novgorod, and the complexity of thirteenth century Russia, try The Crisis of Medieval Russia, 1200-1304 by John Fennell (1983). 

The map of the Soviet Union was featured in a 1938 edition of the New York Sunday News and can be found here. I really like old maps. They are great.