After the international recognition of his most famous work Battleship Potemkin (1925), Sergei Eisenstein sought to capitalise on his burgeoning career by traveling to Hollywood in 1930, pitching several film projects that were either not completed or even realised. Disenchanted with his encounters in Hollywood, Eisenstein received an offer from American novelist and vocal socialist, Upton Sinclair, to direct a revolutionary epic about Mexico and its people, Que Viva Mexico! (1932) - and the seeds were sown for perhaps one of the greatest tragedies to ever befall a high-profile director.
Que Viva Mexico! was besieged with financial problems as Eisenstein - with his penchant for meticulous detail and grand spectacle - exceeded the limitations of his budget and incurred the wrath of Sinclair, who refused to hand over the film’s prints to the Russian director. The footage - which contained some of Eisenstein’s most striking directon - was negotiated to Sol Lesser, the
producer of the Tarzan films, who cannibalised it to produce the feature Thunder Out of Mexico (1933) and two shorts, Death Day and Eisenstein in Mexico. These films were completely alien to Eisenstein’s vision, retaining none of the panoramic scope and artistry that were present in the original project’s embryonic conception.
Eisenstein returned to the Soviet Union in 1933 before retreating to the Caucasus, falling into a bout of severe depression - a permanent legacy from Mexico that would continue to haunt him until his death in 1947. Becoming increasingly reclusive, he devoted himself to his theoretical work and eventually made the conscious decision to return to the State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow as a film lecturer and theorist. Whilst in this position, Eisenstein attempted to pursue film projects that had fascinated him - perhaps his most prominent ideas
were to produce a motion picture epic on the Haitian revolutionary, Toussaint l’Ouverture, and a film adaptation of Marx’s "Das Capital."
The Soviet government, berating the proposed projects for their dialectical materialism, ensured that they were never made.
Commissioned by the Communist Youth League to commemorate the contribution of the Young Pioneers to collective farm work, Eisenstein commenced production on Bezhim Meadow in 1935 - a propaganda film about the martyrdom of an idealistic peasant and his struggle against the
insidious kulaks, led by his own father. Unable to complete the picture due to an affliction of smallpox in that year and a bout of influenza in 1936, Eisenstein was forced to relinquish his role as director, although he valiantly continued to collaborate on Bezhim Meadow’s screenplay with the legendary Russian writer, Issac Babel.
The new executive of Soviet film production, Boris Shumyatsky, published a vehement denunciation, “The Errors of Bezhim Meadow,” criticising Eisenstein of “making Bezhim Meadow only because it offered him an opportunity to indulge in formalistic exercises. Instead of creating a strong, clear, direct work, Eisenstein detached his work from reality, from the colours and heroism of reality. He consciously reduced the work’s ideological content.” Succumbing to Shumyatsky’s demands, the production of Bezhim Meadow ceased and the footage disappeared - rumoured to have been purposely destroyed on the direct orders of the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin.
In an attempt to appease the Stalinist regime, Eisenstein responded with a self-indictment, pledging to “rid myself of the last anarchistic traits of individualism in my outlook and creative method.”
He bore witness to the infamous Moscow Trials - the government’s ruthless purge of its “intellectual dissidents,” which included the execution of Stalin’s allies, Lenin and Trotsky. Meyerhold, Babel, Tretyakov were also victims of the dictatorship’s paranoia. Eisenstein escaped certain execution, only because of his international reputation as one of the world’s foremost artists and theorists, and his close association with Chaplin and Robeson; to have liquidated Eisenstein or Pudovkin would have alienated the liberal support upon whom the Stalinists depended.
As war clouds loomed over Europe with Hitler threatening - in no uncertain terms - to crush the Bolsheviks underfoot, Stalin commissioned Eisenstein to direct a propaganda film to arouse the patriotic spirit of every Russian citizen, while delivering an ominous warning to the Germans
should they decided to declare war on the Soviet Union. The resulting picture, Alexander Nevsky, was based on the historical account of the Russian prince who, with a rag-tag army of ill-equipped and ill-trained peasants, defeated the oppressive might of the Teutonic Knights in
the 12th century. The picture signaled a resurrection of sorts for Eisenstein - not only was Alexander Nevsky the first of his films to feature sound, but its nationalist sentiments made him appear more favourable to Stalin’s eye.
Completed in 1938, Alexander Nevsky earned Eisenstein the Order of Lenin and the title of Doctor of the Science of Art Studies. However, for political reasons, the film was shelved due to the signing of the Russo-German non-aggression act (ironically named the Pact of Steel) in that same year; but with the advent of Operation Barbarossa - the German offensive of Russia in 1941 -
Stalin purportedly ordered the picture to be shown in every theatre within the Soviet Union to rouse the nation’s citizens in a rallying call to repel the invaders. It is ironic that a film based on factual accounts in 1242 could predict - in an eerily prophetic fashion - events that were not to occur for another 700 years.
|"The strength of a sword is in the arm that wields it.
In a thinly disguised attempt to romanticise Stalin as the heroic protector of Mother Russia, Eisenstein’s epic centers on Prince Alexander Nevsky (Nikolai Cherkasov), an intuitive warrior and tactician, whose surname is derived from the Neva River where, in 1240, he defeated the
invading Swedish armies. The film opens in 1242, following Nevsky’s triumphant victory, and witnesses him living in self-imposed exile as a fisherman somewhere in Eastern Russia - a region subjugated and held under territorial control by the Mongols. Aware of his military expertise, the
Mongols dispatch representatives to enlist Alexander’s services as a field commander, but he refuses, electing to remain in Russia.
From the west, the all-conquering Teutonic Knights - a religious order attempting to unite all of Christendom under the Holy Roman Emperor - smash into the north of Russia, obliterating all opposition as more and more cities capitulate before them. The Germanic invaders conduct
outflanking manoeuvres, encircling their enemies and cutting them off in a pincer fashion, ensuring that nothing can escape their wrath; in an act of brutal suppression, the Teutons torch the city of Pskov and, in the name of Christianity, proceed to commit ritualistic slaughter of its
inhabitants, their barbarity reaching its horrific pinnacle as infant children are thrown into raging bonfires.
With the annexation of Pskov and the entirety of western Russia under their heel, the Teutonic Order focus their attention on Novgorod, the epitome of the Russian motherland and the last bastion of freedom.
At Pereslavl, ambassadors from Novgorod attempt to impress upon Alexander the urgency of the situation and implore him to assume the position of prince once more. On learning of the atrocities committed in Pskov, Alexander makes the decision to fight back and repulse the Teutonic invaders, then mobilises the nation’s free citizens into arming themselves. Yet, time is of the essence as the inhabitants of Novgorod are locked into a torturous debate - resist the
oppressors or appease them by negotiating an non-aggression pact. Ill-trained and ill-equipped against the superior might and armour of the enemy, Alexander's forces march to meet their destiny on the frozen battlefield of Lake Chudskoye - where tenacity and fate will decide the future of the Russian homeland.
The climactic 30 minute Battle on the Ice sequence ranks as one of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed and proved to be the inspiration for generations of film-makers to come - most notably, Stanley Kubrick in his biblical epic, Spartacus (1960). Kubrick burrowed from Eisenstein’s
elaborate staging: the troop deployments, the intricate strategic manoeuvres, the deathly silence preceding the actual battle, and the aftermath that reinforces the sense of struggle and - more importantly - loss. It may seem almost preposterous to mention it, but Alexander Nevsky was instrumental in the evolution of the war film; its influence continues to resonate, even in a picture that appears as far removed as Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). The evidence is there, if one wishes to look.
Alexander Nevsky is presented in its original screen aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and is not anamorphic.
This transfer suffers from a severe case of indistinct sharpness and detail that can be attributed to filming in an outdoor environment - which was necessary, due to the picture’s epic scope and its need for exterior location shooting in order to accommodate the thousands of screen extras and panoramic battles. This assumption is made only from the fact that where scenes and inserts have been obviously filmed on an interior set, both detail and sharpness are marginally better; however, even in these instances, it seems inadequate when compared to the magnificent restorative work applied to Eisenstein’s Strike (1924). Yet, as far as it can be ascertained, the region 1 Criterion edition of Alexander Nevsky exhibits superior definition all round.
Although it is possible that this lack of detail in the region 4 version is due to the transfer itself, it is more likely that the deficiencies reside in the print that was sourced to provide it.
There are no significant MPEG artefacts. However, there is an abundance of film artefacts, consisting of scratches, dirt and print damage, which - along with editorial cuts - results in the picture’s frequent jumps. Despite this, it proved to be of no major detriment to the viewing
experience. More troublesome - to me, at least - was the distinct amount of telecine wobbling that occurs in Alexander Nevsky’s opening credits. The white embedded English subtitles do not appear, in comparison to Ivan the Terrible Parts I & II, to be too difficult to read and are quite discernible; yet, this reviewer will wager that those with a standard size screen, and who have
poorer eyesight, may experience some difficulties.
Grain is quite evident throughout the film - particularly during Eisenstein’s long shots of distant terrain beneath clear Russian skies - but cannot be considered too much of a distraction, given the vintage of the motion picture.
Although contrast is rather consistent, brightness tends to fluctuate on a regular basis. Black levels seem to be quite low, while lightly “coloured” areas appear intensely white - for instance, Alexander Nevsky’s opening scene where the bleached skeletal remains of slain combatants and
horses are depicted is extremely bright, exhibiting a substantial loss of detail and definition; other notable examples include the white ceremonial robes of the Teutonic Knights and the frozen battleground of Lake Chudskoye. Shadow detail, as one would expect, is very inefficient. As Alexander Nevsky was filmed in black-and-white, there are no true issues associated with bleeding or oversaturation.
There is but one audio selection available: the remastered Russian Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack.
It should be mentioned that, despite the fact that Alexander Nevsky’s audio presentation is of a
horrific quality, it is not necessarily an inherent flaw within the transfer itself. According to historical documentation, it was Stalin’s inexplicable decision to allow the film’s audio and renowned Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s magnificent score to be recorded on the most
primitive Soviet sound engineering equipment at the time - on technology that was, at least, ten years behind the United States. This information is not offered as an excuse to defend the transfer’s poor audio; it is a certified fact.
There are no redeemable aspects in the audio department. Sound is horribly compressed to an extent where it can be deemed unbearable at even moderate volume - at higher levels, the limitations in dynamic range are nothing short of catastrophic. Dialogue is suffocated beneath a
blanket of weak frequency and vocal distortion. During the picture’s finale, the frenzied and agonised shouts of the warring combatants tend to become quite shrill. The clashing of swords, the metallic din of spears impacting upon armoured shields and terrified horses sound anemic to
the point where it is difficult to become involved in the on-screen carnage; were it not for Eisenstein’s stunning images, your attention would be drifting elsewhere.
Being a mono presentation, there is no activity from the rear surrounds, nor is there support from the subwoofer.