Alexander Nevsky - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USSR, 1938

Director: Sergei Eisenstein

Production: Mosfilm; black and white, 35mm; length: 3044 meters. Released 23 November 1938. Filmed June through November 1938 in Moscow.

Scenario: Sergei Eisenstein and Pyotr Pavlenko; collaborating director: D. J. Vasiliev; photography: Edward Tisse; editor: Sergei Eisenstein; sound: B. Volsky and V. Popov; production design: Isaac Shpinel, Nikolai Soloviov, and K. Yeliseyev from Eisenstein's sketches; music: Sergei Prokofiev; costume designers: Isaac Shpinel, Nikolai Soloviov, and K. Yeliseyev from Eisenstein's sketches; consultant on work with actors: Elena Telesheva.

Cast: Nikolai Cherkasov ( Prince Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky ); Nikolai Okhlopkov ( Vasili Busali ); Alexander Abrikosov ( Gavrilo Oleksich ); Dmitri Orlov ( Ignat, Master Armorer ); Vasili Novikov ( Pavsha, Governor of Pskov ); Nikolai Arsky ( Domash Tverdislavich ); Vera Ivasheva ( Olga, a Novogorod girl ); Varvarra Massalitinova ( Amelfa Timofeyevna ); Anna Danilova ( Vasilisa, a girl of Pskov ); Vladimir Yershov ( Von Blak, Grand Master of the Livonian Order ); Sergei Blinnikov ( Tverdilo, traitorous Mayor of Pskov ); Ivan Lagutin ( Ananias ); Lev Fenin ( Bishop ); Naum Rogozhin ( Black-robed Monk ).

Awards: Order of Lenin award, Soviet Union, 1939.



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Alexander Nevsky
Alexander Nevsky

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The cinematic works of Sergei Eisenstein demonstrate a continuous effort to explore and develop the elements of his theory of montage. Two marked phases of style and technique are evident in this development. The first phase consists of Eisenstein's silent films of the 1920s, the second is associated with his 1930s and 1940s sound films. In the first phase of his cinematic career Eisenstein introduces the formal concepts of intellectual montage, mise-en-scène, and a revolutionary new narrative concept: the portrayal of the mass as hero. With Alexander Nevsky Eisenstein enters a second phase in which the individual within the collective dominates the narrative, while vertical montage and pictorial composition replace intellectual montage as the primary formal devices in his films. These new techniques are not totally divorced from Eisenstein's early film methods, but have evolved from them.

The emphasis upon the individual within the collective in Alexander Nevsky can be seen as the maturing of the earlier concept in which the mass is portrayed as hero. Reflecting upon Soviet silent cinema, Eisenstein writes that the films are flawed in that they fail to fully represent the concept of collectivity: "collectivism means the maximum development of the individual within the collective . . . Our first mass films missed this deeper meaning." In the depiction of "the general-revolutionary slogan" of the 1920s, the mass as hero functioned well, but to convey the more specific Communist message of the 1930s, images of leading individuals were needed.

In Alexander Nevsky the theme of the Russian people's patriotism is emphasized through such exemplary characters as Prince Alexander, Busali, and Gavrilo Oleksich. Even though this narrative approach resembles that of more traditional cinema, Eisenstein's characters embody patriotic ideals in such an extreme way that they become symbols rather than simple heroic personalities. The story of Alexander Nevsky lends itself to this larger-than-life treatment of its characters. It presents historical figures and events of such mythic proportions that, while the viewer may sympathize with the characters, he does not easily identify with them, and so the viewer is not distracted from the general theme of the film. It is intended that the ideas the characters represent will be remembered rather than their individual personalities. The characters must support, even succumb to, the dominant theme of the strength and patriotism of the Russian people.

Structuring a film so that all its individual elements are controlled by the theme is a formal concern common to both silent and sound film in Eisenstein's work. In the early silent films this formal method was referred to as overtonal montage, and dictated that all the visual images of a film, which have been developed through the use of intellectual, metric, rhythmic, and tonal montage, serve to reveal and illustrate the dominant theme. The controlling formal method in Alexander Nevsky , vertical montage, is much the same as overtonal, but with the additional element of sound. Vertical montage, according to Eisenstein, links different spheres of feeling—particularly the visual image with the sound image—to create a single, unified effect. The audio and visual elements are not only governed by the dominant theme of the film, but work together to convey that theme in a strongly emotional manner.

The attack of the German wedge on the Russian army in "The Battle on the Ice" sequence in Alexander Nevsky demonstrates this appeal to the emotions. The musical score contributes greatly to the pacing and emotional tone of the sequence. Changes in the pace of pictorial movement are accompanied by a corresponding rhythmic or melodic change. In addition, Eisenstein uses the combination of sound and image to suggest to the viewer things that cannot actually be seen on screen. Although this approach resembles that of intellectual montage, it functions on a more poetic or metaphorical level. For example, Eisenstein causes us to experience the leaping and pounding of horses' hooves as equivalent to the beating of an agitated heart, a heart experiencing the increasing terror of the battle on the ice.

The most obvious use of vertical montage in Alexander Nevsky is in the relationship throughout the film between the musical score and the pictorial composition. This relationship was developed through several different methods. For some sequences the music was written with a general theme or idea in mind. In other sequences the music was written for an already assembled visual episode. In yet other sequences, the visual images were edited to music already on the sound track. The final result of these editing methods is a connection between the visuals and the musical score that goes beyond the enhancement of the mood of a sequence. Throughout Alexander Nevsky Eisenstein strives for a complete correspondence between the movement of the music and the movement of the eye over the lines of the plastic composition. The same motion found within the image composition of a shot sequence can be found in the complementary musical score for that sequence. That is, the ascending or descending shape of the notes of the written musical score correspond directly to the movement of the eye over the planes of the composition within each shot of a film sequence. Although the details of this complex sound-image relationship may not be apparent while viewing Alexander Nevsky , what is apparent is the solidity this relationship lends to the film. The sound and visual elements combine to create a unified whole. Eisenstein states that, in comparison to the films of the 1920s, the new Soviet sound cinema appeared more traditional "and much closer to the foreign cinema than those films that once declared war to the death against its (the foreign cinema's) very principles and methods." Two elements that contribute to the traditional appearance of Alexander Nevsky are its story and pictorial composition which are based in conventional techniques drawn from literature and painting. In the 1930s Eisenstein had become interested in the application of other art forms to film. Literature, he felt, offered "the dramatics of subject." Cinema should again be concerned with story and plot— concepts Eisenstein had condemned in the 1920s—but this was not a call for a return to conventional content. Eisenstein felt that conventional forms could be utilized to present fresh content. The new story would not be centered around a traditional bourgeois hero, but would instead feature modern protagonists who represent the individual within the collective. These individuals, as we see in Alexander Nevsky , would embody the ideology of the proletariat.

In contrast to the photographic quality of Eisenstein's earlier films, the individual frames of Alexander Nevsky are reminiscent of painted battle scenes and landscapes. This is why the battle scenes may appear unrealistic: they are highly stylized, like paintings. An example of this approach is the creation of "The Battle on the Ice." Not only was the composition of individual shots stylized, but the landscape itself was totally simulated. The winter battle scene was actually shot in the heat of July; the ice and snow were created with melted glass, alabaster, chalk, and salt. The appearance of the summer sky was altered with the use of a filter on the camera lens. The scene was almost literally painted on a blank canvas.

Although some critics were disappointed with Eisenstein's variations on, or departure from, his earlier methods, Alexander Nevsky was a success upon its release in 1938. Probably Eisenstein's most commercially popular film in his own country, it also survived the scrutiny of Joseph Stalin, earning the symbol of official government approval, the Order of Lenin, in February of 1939. Soviet and foreign critics alike applauded the film as the work which, after more than six years of unproductivity, not all of it voluntary, returned Eisenstein to his former status as one of the foremost creative talents of the Soviet cinema.

Alexander Nevsky is viewed in much the same manner today as it was upon its original release. It is not considered Eisenstein's best film but its epic qualities and cinematic achievement, and particularly the "Battle on the Ice" sequence, are appreciated. The concept of vertical montage, however, has come under closer scrutiny than in past years. Although critics may disagree on the extent to which the sound-image unity of vertical montage is at work in this particular film, they do seem to agree on the importance of Eisenstein's theoretical effort: he was one of the first to attempt an articulation of the relationship between sound and image in cinema.

—Marie Saeli

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