Alexander Nevsky (1938)
Politics and Warfare
Peasants, Townspeople, and Social Life
The 1938 film, Alexander Nevsky, directed by Sergei Eisenstein, is a war propaganda film that glamorized the Russians and condemned the Nazis. The film centers on the exploits of the thirteenth-century Russian hero, Prince Alexander Nevsky, and Eisenstein used the prince’s famous battle - Battle on the Ice - to draw parallels to modern-day politics, such as the tensions between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. In doing so, he was able to drive home the theme of Russian/Soviet patriotism and critique the violence and ignorance of fascism.
The film takes place in the thirteenth century when the Teutonic knights (who stand in for the Germans) were invading cities in Russia. They round up women and children and burn them alive. In these desperate times, the Russians need a leader to fight the Teutonic knights. After much debate between the nobles on who should lead them, they finally decide on Nevsky, who was already a war hero from before. When urged to take the position, Alexander responded: “I will stand up for [the] Rus.” In the face of resistance from the merchants of Novgorod, the prince rallies the common (peasant) people to fight the Germans and demands weapons. The movie then leads us to the infamous “Battle on the Ice.” On the surface of the frozen lake Peipus, the Russians overpower the Teutonic knights and are victorious. The movie ends with everyone cheering and celebrating their win in the battle.
In order to understand how and why the director chose to make this film, we first need to understand Eisenstein’s life in the Soviet Union. According to John Aberth’s A Knight at the Movies, Eisenstein was a director that lived in the USSR during Stalin’s rule. He subscribed to the formalist school of film theory, which held that movies were to be as theatrical as possible, and he was criticized for his style. From 1930 to 1934, Eisenstein got permission to travel abroad and learn about new movie technology and even signed on with Paramount Studios, but all of his work was rejected. Coming home with no achievements, Eisenstein was ridiculed and received the lowest honors. In addition to that, some of his contemporaries had been condemned by the state. Fearing for his life, Eisenstein made Alexander Nevsky. By making a movie that was to work as an allegory praising Stalin and the USSR, Eisenstein hoped the film would help his reputation.
The movie comments on the fraught political relationship between the Soviet Union and Germany. Simply put, the good guys in the movie are the Russians (particularly Nevsky and the peasant fighters) and the villains are the Germans (the Teutonic knights, who are framed as ominous religious fanatics). Nevsky was a stand-in for Stalin, a formidable leader who was depicted as a champion for the rights and protection of his people. A frequent trope in propaganda was Stalin as a “father” to his people, who were, in effect, his “children,” which mirrors a scene towards the end of the film showing Nevsky carrying children on his lap and on his back. In making these unsubtle similarities, Eisenstein glamorizes Nevsky as a great hero. He contrasts this image by showing Germans in a very bad light – as enemies who kill children. Religion, as practiced by the Germans in the film, is also clearly shown as being the “opioid of the people,” which is in line with the political thinking of the time. By drawing on all these visual metaphors, Eisenstein made a highly politicized film.
In terms of the historical Alexander Nevsky, Eisenstein only hit on the main points that we know of his life. The movies showed that he was a prince, although he was always seen with the peasants, and made the point of him being the leader of the Battle on the Ice. The movie inaccurately portrays Nevsky’s relationship with the Mongols. In the movie, Alexander stands up to the Mongols and refuses to join them. He says, “We have a saying – Better to die in your land than to leave it.” But this was very much inaccurate. According to Britannica, Alexander Nevsky was very afraid of the Mongols. He appeased them by giving into all their demands. There was a riot among the common people in Novgorod because the Mongols taxed them. Fearing that he may be punished, Nevsky quickly suppressed the riot and made everyone pay. The prince was also known as a saint after his death, but because religion was suppressed in the Soviet Union, Eisenstein did not show that in the movie and tried to make Nevsky as secular as possible.
The film received very positive reviews by film critics and historians. It has a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and 7.7/ 10 in imdb. It was considered a success in the Soviet Union and Eisenstein was praised as a true Bolshevik. Even Stalin himself praised the movie. Eisenstein received the Stalin Prize, Order of Lenin, and a doctorate from the Academy of Sciences. Though there were many positive reviews, the director also received many critiques of his work. Some told Eisenstein that this movie was unrecognizable and was called an “ass- kisser, obeying a vicious dog’s orders.” Even Eisenstein said later on that he betrayed himself when making this movie. He was highly monitored by Stalin’s agents during the making of the film, and when he wanted to kill off Nevsky, the scene was eliminated. The Main Film Directorate exclaimed: “Such a fine prince could not die.”
Ultimately, Alexander Nevsky was a war propaganda film that was made to send a message more than to entertain. It had no interest in the historical Alexander Nevsky but used his story as a vehicle to advance a political stance on Germans and fascism.
Now in Public Domain
High Middle Ages (c. 1000-1300)
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