Alexander Nevsky (1938)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Cast: Nikolai Cherkasov, Nikolai Okhlopkov, Andrei Abrikosov
Synopsis: The story of how a great Russian prince led a ragtag army to battle an invading force of Teutonic Knights.
I’m not a big fan of Sergei Eisenstein — or any other Russian director, to be honest — but it seems to me that he did his best work in the silent era and never really came to grips with the requirements of sound. Alexander Nevsky was Eisenstein’s first talking feature, and although he’d made a few short sound movies during the 1930s, his inexperience with the new technology seems apparent in the stilted performances of his actors, who often appear to be waiting for a cue, and who strike poses and make speeches rather than talk like normal people.
The film recounts the exploits of the title character, a Russian prince who drove back invading Teutonic knights with an army of eager but inexperienced peasants at a lake near Novgorod. The backstory is kept simple, with an appeal made only to the audience’s primal territorial instincts. The film was made in 1938, when the war clouds were gathering, and the film’s propagandistic message is hammered home with little subtlety or finesse. Ironically, the film was shelved following the signing of the Soviet-German non-aggression pact, although Stalin ordered it to be shown in every cinema in the country following the collapse of the treaty in 1941.
The battle scenes are effectively handled, but presumably suffer from budgetary constraints as Eisenstein often resorts to filming clashes from a low angle to save on detail and extras, while Eduard Tisse’s camera captures some eye-catching compositions but remains resolutely static. The acting is abysmal in any language and renders supposedly emotional scenes — like the battle’s aftermath — laughable. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the fact that Alexander Nevsky was directed by Eisenstein — one of cinema’s untouchables — this film would barely be remembered today. Those who consider themselves a cineaste will no doubt love it, but most honest film buffs will probably struggle to make it to the end credits.
(Reviewed 28th October 2014)