Released in late 1938, Alexander Nevsky was not only the first sound film to be directed by Sergei Eisenstein, but the director’s political comeback as well. This most famous of Soviet artists had not completed a movie since The Old and the New in 1929. A fruitless trip to Hollywood had weakened his position in the increasingly regimented Soviet Union; he suffered first the debacle of Que Viva Mexico! and then the disaster of the unfinished Bezhin Meadow.
In the spring of 1937, the Soviet film tsar Boris Shumyatsky gave Eisenstein a choice of several historical subjects, including the 13th-century warrior-saint Alexander Nevsky and his victory over the German knights of the Teutonic Order. Eisenstein chose Nevsky because relatively little was known about him—hence, the filmmaker reasoned, he would work under fewer constraints. Eisenstein told his colleague Mikhail Romm that he would find an actor and cast him and “the whole world will soon believe that the real Nevsky was just like my actor.” Indeed, painter Pavel Korin’s 1942–43 triptych Alexander Nevsky is clearly modeled on the actor Nikolai Cherkasov—whose presence in Nevsky served Eisenstein as a political insurance policy.
An imposing figure with a booming voice, the 34-year-old Cherkasov began his career as a music hall comedian but became a star—not to mention a State Artist and member of the Supreme Soviet—by playing several stalwart heroes, among them the crown prince Alexei in Peter the Great. The actor was not the only official favorite connected with the production. Eisenstein’s co-writer Pyotr Pavlenko was a loyal Stalinist and very likely secret-police agent. Their scenario was completed in November 1937. Nevsky wrapped months ahead of schedule, in part because Eisenstein was able to assign much of the actual direction to Dmitri Vasilev, his studio-appointed watchdog.
Propagandist though it may be, Alexander Nevsky depends scarcely on dialogue for its impact. Eisenstein’s closest collaborator was the distinguished composer Sergei Prokofiev, who, so the filmmaker wrote, provided the stirring chorales and keening oratorios that determined Nevsky’s “symphonic structure.” Prokofiev took an active role in supervising the recording of the film’s audio track, often devising sound effects to Eisenstein’s specifications. While much of his score was composed for edited sequences, other scenes were cut to match already-recorded music—a technique then commonly known in Hollywood as “Mickey-Mousing.”
Steeped in xenophobia and a scarcely unwarranted fear of foreign aggression, Alexander Nevsky was equally synchronized to the world situation in which it was produced. In the opening scene, Nevsky—who has already defeated the Swedes—demonstrates the force of his personality by facing down a company of Mongol warriors. (“Ironically,” as Eisenstein’s biographer Ronald Bergan has noted, this sequence is “imbued with a Nordic savour—tall and fair-haired men and women, in contrast to the dark and shifty-eyed Tartars who descend on the peaceful village, are interchangeable with the iconography of some of the Nazi films being made in Germany during the same period.”)
A spectacle of skeleton battlefields and devastated cities, Alexander Nevsky is framed as a near-cosmic struggle between good and evil. Scenes emphasize German atrocities against Russian civilians, with the invaders further dehumanized by their sinister, horned helmets. And the heart of the movie is the 30-minute Battle on the Ice sequence. A triumph for Eisenstein as well as for Nevsky, this strategically undercranked and brilliantly-edited mix of massing soldiers and slashing close combat—alternately horrifying and carnivalesque—would serve as a prototype for the battlefield scenes in Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus.
Nevsky’s extraordinary set piece was filmed first—during a blazing hot summer—in the countryside outside Moscow. Cinematographer Eduard Tissé used a filter to suggest winter light; trees were painted light blue and dusted with chalk; an artificial horizon was created out of sand. The ice itself was a mixture of asphalt and melted glass. In a remarkable engineering feat, sheets of this fake ice were supported by floating pontoons to be deflated on cue so that it would shatter under the weight of the Teutonic knights according to pre-cut patterns.
Eisenstein took time off from shooting to publish a piece in the official newspaper Izvestia drawing a parallel between Nevsky and Stalin—the movie ends with the hero’s threat that “He who comes to us with a sword, shall die by the sword”—and, late in the editing process, the studio received a midnight call requesting an advance Kremlin screening. Without waking Eisenstein, his assistants showed the footage to the Soviet dictator. That a reel consequently disappeared has inspired two theories: one, that the reel was mistakenly left behind in the editing room, and, as Stalin failed to notice the gap, it was deemed more prudent to go with his approved version than to reinsert the missing material. The second theory suggests that Stalin objected to a sequence featuring a brawl among the people of Novgorod. Whichever was the case, the reel was destroyed.
Alexander Nevsky had its gala Moscow premiere in late November 1938, barely two months after the Munich agreement effectively dismembered Czechoslovakia and apparently left the Soviets isolated in their animosity towards the Nazi regime. Stalin publicly congratulated Eisenstein and the following February, the filmmaker, along with Cherkasov, was decorated with the Order of Lenin. When Nevsky opened in the U.S. in the spring of 1939, it was heralded by a two-page picture spread in Life magazine and greeted with rave, somewhat incredulous, reviews. In The New York Times, Frank Nugent deemed Eisenstein’s work as far beyond “ordinary critical scrutiny” as the American monument (then under construction) on Mount Rushmore.
But if Alexander Nevsky was by far the greatest crowd-pleaser of Eisenstein’s career, it was hardly immune to prevailing political currents. When the Soviets and the Nazis signed their non-aggression pact in August 1939, the movie was discreetly withdrawn from circulation—only to be re-released three years later once the Nazis invaded the Soviet motherland. Arguably the most propagandist film Eisenstein ever made, Alexander Nevsky remains a remarkably rhapsodic and dangerously stirring call to arms.