Alexander Nevsky (1938)

I haven’t seen this since, oh, probably the late 90s, and that was the version with the re-recorded music. Which I always thought was ethically dubious, but unfortunately I now find the Criterion edition doesn’t have the unadulterated soundtrack either (Russian end credits seem to suggest a 1986 restoration, wonder if that’s when it was fiddled with). Irritating, but not much to be done about it. Consider the film itself and when it was made, both in terms of Eisenstein’s career and the USSR as a whole. By this time, Eisenstein hadn’t finished a feature since 1929, with aborted projects in the US, Mexico and at home, and the cinematic landscape wasn’t the one he’d left behind in 1929; he had to prove himself all over again. Solution? In a time of Soviet fear of Nazi Germany, make a big historical epic about Russia kicking German arse in the 13th century. It’s been so many years since I saw it that I’d kind of forgotten just how bluntly propagandistic Nevsky is; we’re light years from the comparative humanism of Potemkin (not just because it’s also more about individual figures rather than the mass hero). I don’t think this is as good a bit of filmmaking, but it obviously worked well enough as propaganda that it had to be hidden away after Hitler suddenly became friends with Stalin. And, to be fair, it does still bear reasonably favourable comparison with later films of its action-historical ilk, because it’s in that sort of chest-beating monument vein that Hollywood likes to do… and like some Hollywood films I could name (particularly looking at you here, Black Hawk Down), its careful focus upon one event lets it be dishonest about broader history (no hint here that the historical Alexander later wound up subordinating Russia somewhat to the Mongols). Not my favourite Eisenstein, but still nice to see it again after all these years.

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