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All film students worship, to one degree or another, at the throne of Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein created a highly influential editing technique called "montage" that's used by filmmakers to this day, and is on brilliant display in his 1938 masterpiece, Alexander Nevsky. If D.W. Griffith invented the language of film, through the introduction of such techniques as close-ups and tracking shots, Eisenstein, a Russian, contributed film's elements of grammar.
Eisenstein's pictures taught directors how to pull a psychological response from audiences through the careful sequencing and spacing of images. He might not have been much of an entertainer, but he knew how to play an audience's emotions like a violin. The shower sequence in Psycho (1960) and the baptism-murder montage at the end of The Godfather (1972), to give just two examples, would be impossible to imagine were it not for Eisenstein's contributions to cinema.
Alexander Nevsky takes place in Russia, in 1242. Mongol hordes control the nation, and the Russian people have learned of an eventual attack from the Teutonic Knights. A hero finally arrives in the form of Prince Alexander Nevsky (Nikolai Cherkasov, in a performance that could have been carved into marble), who forms an army, then leads it in a heroic battle against Russia's enemies. It's not hard to imagine Russian audiences standing up and cheering for this film. And that's exactly what they did, at least until Stalin banned Alexander Nevsky because it scorns the concept of a non-aggression pact, and he had just signed one with Germany. (Given the unfortunate results of that particular pact, it would seem that Eisenstein was right.)
Regardless of its setting, Alexander Nevsky was very much a film of its time. Remember, Hitler's war machine was prepared to wrestle the whole of Europe into submission when this movie was being filmed. For that reason, one has to overlook Eisenstein's overt anti-German, anti-Catholic zealotry. In that sense, Alexander Nevsky is not unlike The Birth of a Nation (1915), which, was made by Eisenstein's hero, Griffith. Both films are passionate works by artists who often belabored their own prejudices. But Alexander Nevsky is one of those films in which sheer artistry manages to overwhelm an undercurrent of questionable content.
Outside of Eisenstein's editing, the pivotal element of Alexander Nevsky would have to be its groundbreaking score by Sergei Prokofiev. Actually, it's not really fair to separate the music from the montage in this instance. Alexander Nevsky is one of the first films in which the score was written beforehand, and served as a guideline for editing the images.
This intertwining of music and image came to full fruition in the classic "ice battle" sequence that ends the film. When watched with the sound down low, Eisenstein's images can seem static and too pre-determined. With Prokofiev's score blasting behind them, however, they can whip viewers into a frenzy. Movie buffs will note that many modern film composers like to slip quotes from Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky score into their own soundtracks. Most famously, John Williams lifted a particularly foreboding bass-line for the shark's attack theme in Jaws (1975).
Although it may seem a bit dry to some modern viewers, Alexander Nevsky is about as close to a Hollywood spectacle as Eisenstein would ever get (an attempt in the early 1930s at actually working in Hollywood only frustrated the director). It's possible, of course, to view Alexander Nevsky as nothing but a fastidiously-designed war picture. And that's okay, too. Eisenstein simply wanted his films to move people...albeit, over to his point of view. You certainly don't have to be a film student to appreciate the depth of his accomplishment. It's all right there in front of you, and both your pulse and your intellect will tell you if it's working.
Director: Sergei Eisenstein, Dmitri Vasilyev
Screenplay: Sergei Eisenstein, Pyotr Pavlenko
Original Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Cinematography: Eduard Tisse
Production Design: Iosif Shpinel
Editing: Sergei Eisenstein (uncredited), Esfir Tobak (uncredited)
Art Direction: Sergei Eisenstein (uncredited), Nikolai Solovyov (uncredited)
Costume Design: Konstantin Yeliseyev (uncredited)
Cast: Nikolai Cherkasov (Alexander Nevsky), Nikolai Okhlopkov (Vasili Buslai), Andrei Abrikosov (Gavrilo Oleksich), Dmitri Orlov (Ignat), Vasili Novikov (Pavsha), Nikolai Arsky (Domash Tverdislavich), Varvara Massalitinova (Buslai's mother).
by Paul Tatara