In times of war, we can expect propaganda films to arise, especially from totalitarian regimes. So it is little wonder that the great director Sergei Eisenstein was asked by Stalin in 1938 to make a stirring patriotic film that would inspire Russians to defend the motherland against German aggression. Adding power to the project was the inclusion of the great Russian classical composer Sergei Prokofiev ("Peter and the Wolf") for the musical score and the use of the Russian army as extras.
Had Hitler kept the terms of the Russo-German non-aggression pact of 1938, Alexander Nevsky might remain an obscure film, hidden away in a forgotten vault somewhere in Russia because it was determined to be too anti-German. But when Hitler stupidly invaded Russia in 1941, Eisenstein's film was shown in every theater across Russia to rally patriotic passion against the Germans.
Perhaps Hitler should have watched the film as a reminder of what every potential conqueror of Russia has learned—never attack on Russian soil, especially in the winter.
In a very thinly veiled metaphorical reference to Stalin, Prince Aleksander Nevsky (Nikolai Cherkasov) in 1242 has recently defeated invading Swedes and turned down an offer from the Mongols to serve as a commander to their troops, preferring to remain in Russia: "Better to die in your own land than to leave it." Even though the Russians are being squeezed on two fronts, he realizes that the Germans pose the bigger threat.
As Prince Nevsky declares that the German "dogs" must never set foot on Russian soil, those Teutonic imperialists of 1242 have been doing just that. They had taken over much of western Russia, and now set their sights on Novgorod. Prince Nevsky determines that Novgorod is the place where Russia must make its stand—it is a relatively important and prosperous town.
The citizens of Novgorod debate whether to appease the threatening Teutonic Knights, a religious order (symbolizing the Nazis) that was attempting to unite all the Christian world under the Holy Roman Emperor (a direct symbolic attack on the Russian Orthodox), or to fight them. The townspeople select Domash (Nikolai Arsky) to lead them into battle, but Domash insists that Aleksander take over leadership.
With only his own troops and those of Nogovorod, along with a hastily gathered peasant militia, Nevsky's forces meet the German army at frozen Chudskoe for the climatic battle.
While the large scale battle looks rather silly at times with its amateurish choreography, the staging is quite an accomplishment and the structure of the battle has been copied by many subsequent films�the initial troop placements and maneuvering, the actual battle, and the long aftermath that communicates the ferocity of the struggle. Notably, Stanley Kubrick directly borrows this structure from Eisenstein for his Hollywood epic Spartacus.
Eisenstein also knows that a broad historical approach to a massive war can only be successful by including some human interest and smaller subplots, so he inserts a nicely constructed love triangle with the serious Gavrilo (Andrei Abrikosov) and the more light-hearted Vasili (Nikolai Okholopkov) vying for the hand of Olga (Vera Ivasheva). They decide that the winner will be the man who shows the most courage during the battle, and the result mixes some humor and poignancy.
After the huge battle scene, a number of nearly dead and dying men raise up and call out for their missing wives and lovers—"Maria!" . . . "Nastasia!!" It's a very touching scene that can never again be duplicated.
Wisely retaining Eduard Tisse as his cinematographer (the same man who filmed the memorable scenes in The Battleship Potemkin and October), the photography contains a number of remarkable sequences. Everyone goes orgasmic over the great medieval battle scene on the lake, but I also like the opening shots that visually tell the story of a much older battle with the stark skeletons strewn across the field, some with helmets remaining on the skulls.
Eisenstein certainly lays on the symbolism really thick in this propaganda film, though with the atrocities of the Holocaust, it's not that exaggerated. The spiritual leader of the Teutonic Knights has a crest that parallels the Nazi swastika and the knights are dehumanized with silly looking white helmets that don�t allow us to see much of their faces (perhaps this inspires the stormtroopers of George Lucas' Star Wars). These Germans are brutal�they hang old men, burn women, and toss infants into blazing fires.
Certainly Aleksander Nevsky qualifies as unabashed propaganda, but it also ranks as a first rate film about war that holds up because of Eisenstein's film artistry. Years from now filmmakers will continue to study this film to learn how to compose and shoot effective battle scenes, which is far more than can be said for other blatantly propaganda films. After all, how many future filmmakers will look to John Wayne's The Green Berets for instructional material?