Alexander Nevsky (1938)

“Go tell all in foreign lands that Russia lives! Those who come to us in peace will be welcome as a guest. But those who come to us sword in hand will die by the sword! On that Russia stands and forever will we stand!”

‘Alexander Nevsky’, directed by Sergei Eisenstein in 1938, is an historical drama that tells the story of a battle between Russia and the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire in the thirteen century. As with his later movies focusing on Ivan the Terrible, Eisenstein’s epic and stylised vision is both distinctive and stirring, but what stands out strongly with this movie is the explicit anti-German sentiment it rides on. The Teutonic Knights are presented as cyphers: monolithic, evil invaders who are depicted starkly and, a lot of the time, anonymous behind their helmets. Clearly George Lucas was aware of this film, and it’s tempting to cite it as an influence on the style of ‘Star Wars’ as the Kurosawa movies that are traditionally referred to. Highlights of the film are the epic final battle on a frozen lake: the sheer number and movement of the actors is suggestive of a tightly controlled and expert choreography. These scenes also seem to place the actors in real jeopardy, it’s questionable, for example, how many of the stunts involving the cracking ice and drowning had safety measures put in place. It’s a brilliant film visually but aspect that really drives it is the politics, preparing contemporary Russians for a grand defence against the Nazis.

Would I recommend it? Yes – watching it in a double (triple) bill with Eisentein’s later Ivan the Terrible movies may give an impression of how the director shifted politically and also an indication of how Stalin controlled the cultural output of the country. Alternatively, watching this with Tarkovsky’s ‘Andrei Rublev’ gives a contrasting view of how medieval history can be depicted on screen: austere and cerebral vs. stylised and emotionally nationalistic.

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