Saturday, May 06, 2017

Aleksandr Nevskij / Alexander Nevsky (The Nitrate Picture Show)

Alexander Nevsky. Together with Sergei Prokofiev Sergei Eisenstein created a composition of sound and image, a montage of aural and visual overtones. Please click to enlarge the image.

Александр Невский / Aleksanteri Nevski / Storm över Ryssland
Sergei M. Eisenstein and Dmitriy Vasilev, Soviet Union 1938
Print source: Österreichisches Filmmuseum (Austrian Film Museum), Vienna
Running time: 108 minutes
The Nitrate Picture Show, George Eastman Museum, Dryden Theatre, 6 May 2017

About the print:
At some point in the 1960s, this became the 324th print to enter the collection of the Austrian Film Museum, likely a donation of the Soviet embassy in Vienna. The print is in excellent condition. Shrinkage: 0.8–1%

About the film:
“In Nevsky, the white robes of the Teuton Ritter were associated with the themes of cruelty, oppression and death, while the color of black, attached to the Russian warriors, conveyed the positive themes of heroism and patriotism. This deviation from the generally accepted image for these colors would have been less surprising to the critics and press abroad (whose objections were very interesting in themselves) if they had recalled an astonishing and powerful passage of literature which I have since found for myself—the chapter called ‘The Whiteness of the Whale,’ in Melville’s Moby Dick.”
– Sergei Eisenstein, The Film Sense, 1942

“It is necessary to show historical figures correctly and strongly. You directed Alexander Nevskij. It came out very well. The most important thing is to maintain the style of the historical period.”
– Joseph Stalin in conversation with Sergei Eisenstein, Moscow, February 1947

AA: Introduced by Paolo Cherchi Usai and Alexander Horwath, screened with e-subtitles in English.

Revisited Alexander Nevsky, a film that takes place in a period where history still blends with myth. The 13th century was a turbulent period around the Baltic sea. States and nations of today did not yet exist. Everything was in turmoil. An ancient pagan culture still survived in Finland, surrounded by Catholics in the West and Orthodox believers in the East.

Immediately in the lyrics of the opening song of the film we learn that "there was a battle on the Neva" where "a cruel adversary, a Swedish host" was beaten. Neva is a river that flows from Lake Ladoga to the Gulf of Finland in Karelia, through what is now St. Petersburg, giving the name to its main street Nevsky Prospekt. Karelia is divided between Russia and Finland today, as often before. "The Swedish host" consisted of Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns (including pagan Tavastians), but Karelians fought with Russians.

The Battle of the Neva has just taken place when the film starts, and the victorious warlord will be called Alexander Nevsky. He is the Prince of Novgorod (Novgorod was both a state and the capital of the state, a huge area of what is now Northern Russia). Immediately in the beginning we witness Alexander's diplomacy with the Golden Horde. Alexander has beaten the Swedes. Next come the Germans, and only then the Mongols.

During the making of the film Sergei Eisenstein was under the permanent control of two of Stalin's henchmen, the co-director Dmitri Vasilev and the co-screenwriter Pyotr Pavlenko, whose mission was to curb Eisenstein's "formalism". The result was a film closer to the mainstream than anything Eisenstein ever did. For example, for the first time he employed professional actors.

But the portrait of Alexander Nevsky as a man of the people was also deeply personal for Eisenstein whose favourite film was John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln made the next year. We first encounter Alexander as a fisherman, which may also be an allusion to "the big fishermen" in the Bible, although the official church here is painted in mostly sinister colours. Which is perhaps not far from the truth. The Finnish tradition about our Bishop Thomas of the 13th century (a Dominican, a Black Friar, a participant in the Battle of Neva) is not incompatible with the scary figures hovering over the Teutons here.

In the same popular vein are portrayed the gallant rivals Vasili Buslaev and Gavrilo Oleksich, both in love with the warrior maid Olga Danilovna, all great fighters from Novgorod. There are also traitors among Russians, ready to trade Russia for its goods.

The film is balanced between two impressive setpieces, one about life, the other about death. The great market of Novgorod is a showcase of the vitality of the people (and the merchants!). The Battle on the Ice of the Lake Peipus (Lake Chudskoe) takes place against the Livonian branch of the Teutonic Knights. It is one of the most legendary battle sequences in the history of the cinema.

Although there was an attempt to create popular cinema there is a strange jarring quality in the film. The ice battle filmed in summer heat is simultaneously impressive and unconvincing. The urge of the ostraneniya ("making strange") of the Formalists never left Eisenstein despite Vasilev and Petrenko's best efforts.

The great new element in Alexander Nevsky for Eisenstein was of course sound. Alexander Nevsky was Eisenstein's first sound film, and together with the composer Sergei Prokofiev he took the challenge of music so seriously that the result became one of the all time best film scores. Eisenstein treated Prokoviev as an equal and often let the film become music-driven.

The result was so powerful that immediately the music gained a life of its own as the Alexander Nevsky Cantata. Listening to this unforgettable music today on this print I also understood why there are now so many live film concerts of Alexander Nevsky. The performance of the score and the sound technology employed on the film itself are primitive and inadequate. They do not do justice to Prokofiev.

In fact, there is a film concert of Alexander Nevsky in Helsinki this year, 13 October 2017 at The Helsinki Music Center, Frank Strobel conducting the Radio Symphony Orchestra and Nils Schweckendieck conducting the Great Choir of the Music Center.

Fine visual quality on the nitrate print, doing justice to Eduard Tissé's stark and eloquent images.


1) «Русь под игом монгольским»
2) «Песнь об Александре Невском»
3) «Крестоносцы во Пскове»
4) «Вставайте, люди русские!»
5) «Ледовое побоище»
6) «Поле мёртвых»
7) «Въезд Александра во Псков»

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