Alexander Nevsky

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History remembers Alexander Nevsky (1938) as the film Sergei Eisenstein made at the behest of Stalin. A commissioned work always seems to be looked down upon in Western terms of auteurism. But in the Soviet Union the state dictated what made it onto Russian screens. Alexander Nevsky is Eisenstein’s comeback after the disasters of Bezhin Meadow (1935) and Que Viva Mexico! (1930), making it Eisenstein’s first completed feature with sound.

Similar to how Fritz Lang used diegetic sound in M (1931), Eisenstein constructs his film around musical compositions by Sergei Prokofiev. The collaboration between Eisenstein and Prokofiev is unique for that period in film. Outside of animation and big Hollywood musicals, films weren’t planned out ahead of time to fit a musical composition. Prokofiev and Eisenstein were collaborators in the truest sense and, together, they set of film some of the greatest spectacles of all time.

There really isn’t a way to frame Alexander Nevsky as anything but as a nexus of music and image, Eisenstein and Prokofiev. In the famous “Battle on the Ice” sequence there’s eleven minutes where the film is entirely silent but for Prokofiev’s score. That epic battle scene plays out as a macabre ballet in which the visual stratagems of the silent film are hurled into the mid-twentieth century. Where Eisenstein is exact in the symbolism of every shot, so is Prokofiev precise in matching every note to each dramatic beat so that the film finds total synthesis, realizing the fullest potential of the marriage between image and music.

In Alexander Nevsky all of the genius of Ivan The Terrible, Parts I and II is suggested. In his final unfinished trilogy about Russia’s first Tzar Eisenstein perfects the marriage that forms the aesthetic core of Alexander Nevsky. Part Disney cartoon, part movie serial and icon painting, Alexander Nevsky is essential to understanding how the gap from the silent era to the sound era was bridged. Alexander Nevsky feels years ahead of films made in America at that time. Indeed, the influence of Eisenstein’s comeback film can be felt in works by Orson Welles, František Vláčil, and Akira Kurosawa as well as countless others. Alexander Nevsky is essential cinema.