Thursday, 24 September 2015

Film Review : Alexander Nevsky (1938)

Beware this review will contain spoilers from the start!

Alexander Nevsky is a 1938 film directed by Sergei Eisenstein in association with  Dmitri Vasilyev, it is concerned with the Teutonic Knights invasion of Novgorod in the 13th Century and there defeat by the titular hero. The film bears many marks of the contemporary political climate, with strikingly anti-Nazi propaganda and communist and anti-religious sentiment. Most of the film is composed of the Battle of the Ice, a highly influential battle scene, that is also regularly confused with actual historical fact.

Where to watch?

The best place is to watch is here It is completely legal and free, as Mosfilm recently began uploading its old films in order to counter piracy, so if you want Soviet and post-Soviet Russian films, this is the place to go. It is effectively a Youtube video and the films can also be found on Youtube itself. The website is in Russian, but you can just translate the page (at least you can on Chrome, I am not sure about other browsers) and you can also turn on English subtitles for this film and a lot more (I think.)

                             DVD Cover (though at least one release has quality issues in the UK I have heard.

From this point on expect even BIGGER spoilers. The film starts with Alexander Nevsky fishing in a seemingly rural area. When the Mongols of the Golden Horde arrive, offering Nevsky the position of a commander,he is already a famed and skilled warrior, an interesting spin in my opinion, after defeating the Swedes. At the beginning we hear a lot of patriotic singing and you should expect a lot of this throughout the film.

We then head to Novgorod, where we hear about the fall of Pskov, it is at this point more of the main characters are introduced, Vasili Buslai and Gavrilo Oleksich are two famous warriors from Novgorod who are also friends, they are competing for the affections of Olga Danilovna and her hand. This competition will decided by the bravery they show at the Battle of the Ice.

In Pskov, we see absolutely horrendous acts committed by the Teutonic Knights, including babies being thrown into fire (I did say horrific) and the slaughter of innocents! Although, disturbing, it is not as disturbing as it would have been in a modern film, due to the age of the film.

The film proceeds (though to be fair, I can't remember if this happens earlier or not) with Alexander Nevsky gathering an army of peasants who are in stark contrast to the knightly Teutonic Order. He enters Novgorod itself where gathers mass support , though he faces the opposition of the boyars and merchants there who are urged on by the monk Ananias. One of those who joins Nevsky's swelling ranks is Vasilisa, a daughter of boyar killed in Pskov by the Order and she takes pivotal combat role.

                                                     It does get pretty hectic sometimes!

I presumed the army of Nevsky now headed towards Pskov, when the vanguard is attacked we quickly change to a lengthy battle scene, which is the Battle of the Ice. It seems Nevsky has a plan here and I interpreted it is as him putting men on the left flank, so the centre and right could hit. But after trying to become clear by looking at a article from the Guardian and after watching the battle itself, I still unsure whether this was the plan. For the majority of the film (it at least felt like that) there is a chaotic battle, impressive considering the time it was made, I was left confused by the actual strategy, despite noticing Nevsky's flanking manoeuvre, the climax is predicted before, the armour of Nevsky's enemies is too much and you can guess what happens, when they are on ice, though  to me they Order seemed to be already on the retreat(though interestingly it seems this did not happen in real life).

After the battle, we see the scenes of the aftermath, almost as if after the frenzy we come to poignant scene about the costs of war, as we see a lot of cinema and television. We then head back to Novgorod (I think, perhaps Pskov) for final scenes of judgement, mourning and celebration and the conclusion of the romance story at the beginning, perhaps in a semi-expected way but with a twist.

Though this is a point I must make, due to watching using a translation, I feel part of my confusion for some of the time, was the English. So if you are fluent in Russian, it is certainly the better way to watch it!

                                          An innovative shot for the main battle scene.

I thought about talking about Marxist (Stalinist) themes in this film, but I feel looking at the history of the film and its innovation are perhaps deserving of a different post or two, rather then stuffing them into an over bloated article, though I would like to know your opinion on this, please comment if you prefer longer or shorter articles (and whatever is best for my SEO, that is a semi-joke.)

So this a review right ?

I enjoyed the film, albeit a little bit of confusion, I dare say this is time of film you would enjoy more if you have done Film Studies or just have a general interest in cinema history. 'For it's time' is a bit of a cliche I admit, but I have seen many modern films with less impressive battle scenes. The propaganda is strong, but it is in this century is well, it is just less subtle. This should not spoil your enjoyment of the film. The soundtrack by Sergei Prokofiev is catchy and epic, but is a bit repetitive, it is nice to know he reworked and that although it has degraded significantly many people have watched the film with music played by an orchestra.

So should you watch this ? I would say yes if you are in it for nostalgia and a general interest in the Soviet period, it is a fine historical film in itself. And although the plot is thin and I wish the film could be longer, it in a way avoids the awful trappings of modern cinema. Therefore, I would recommend it, although not perfect it, I can value its worth in innovation and as a classic piece of cinema.

The Guardian

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