Sergei Eisenstein was one of the greatest filmmakers to ever play the game, and in many ways was responsible for the radical technique of montage that first came out during the 20’s with his films (and others like Pudovkin). This technique was that of mixing images that don’t mean anything on their own into something that would create an emotional response on the viewer. He used this now-common technique (mostly in action films) to create some of the most politically-charged films of the silent era such as Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October. After the disaster that was Que Viva Mexico, he returned to Russia to direct this picture, which even if it’s not as obvious on a political level as his previous ones, it still wears his politics clear on it’s sleeves.
When Russia is invaded by Germany during the 13th Century, the peasants of the town of Novgorod go to their leader, Prince Alexander Nevsky, to lead their armies into victory. Alexander agrees and takes them deep into the forests and into the frozen Lake Chudskoe, where the decisive Battle of the Ice is to be fought. Meanwhile, we get a humorous subplot between two friends who both love the same woman, but the woman is indecisive about who she wants. She decides that she will marry the one who is bravest in battle, which gives the two men more than a motivation to go and fight for their country. Yes, this is based on a historically accurate figure and a real battle that occurred in 1242, where many Russian peasants, under the leader of Saint Alexander Nevsky (yes, he was made a Saint), were able to destroy a more experienced German army thanks to the ice underneath them.
This movie is a very well-made swordfight film, and features a lot of excellent acting. Nikolai Cherkasov is majestic in the title role, looking like an armored lion and kicking ass all over the place, showing the down-to-Earth bravery that most armies would love to have in their leader. The two friends in love, played by Nikolai Okhlopkov and Andrei Abrikosov, give some much-needed comic relief, even while they’re fighting, rising the entertainment value of the film. The direction by Eisenstein is flawless, being this one of his most pictoral films, showing the wide landscapes and beautiful skies, and the framing being as epic as the storyline. He was obviously influenced by John Ford’s silent western films. But don’t forget, this is in it’s core a war propaganda film. You have to remember that Hitler and his Nazi army was already conquering all of Europe by the time this film was produced, and the Russians knew they had to motivate the people. It’s probably because of this that the German people are depicted as a group of merciless monsters who kill children and burn people alive, soldiers hidden behind complex, demonic-looking masks, in contrast to the brave but happy people of Russia. The way Nevsky is portrayed, as charismatic, optimistic, wise and brave, is very much the way Stalin wished himself to be seen by the public.
These things didn’t bother me however, as I can differentiate the politics behind the film with it’s storyline and filmmaking style to view it as a single film (this is why I consider Birth of a Nation a masterpiece, even with it’s obvious racist elements). The only thing that bothers me about the film, and you might think it’s silly, but it’s the music. Most of it is fine, but there are some sequences in the battle scenes that feature a really annoying, fast-paced music cue that fits more in a Charlie Chaplin car chase than in an epic battle. It’s distracting and takes away from the suspense.
Still, don’t let it’s political subtext sway you from enjoying this very well-made and entertaining piece of Russian cinema. A masterpiece.