Aleksandr Nevsky (1938)
Directed by Sergei Eisenstein

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * * ½

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The German Livonian Knights invade Russia and are met in battle by Aleksandr Nevsky.

Although frequently overdone, Sergei Eisenstein's Aleksandr Nevsky is such a visually stunning film that it is often genuinely captivating. The director's images of Russian heroes silhouetted against the sky or of Livonian Knights kneeling in the snow before their leaders' crownlike tent are potent and memorable, stirring up, respectively, feelings of a free-spirited bravery and a brutish submissiveness. What is more, his wonderfully poignant depictions of the helmeted German soldiers as faceless, inhuman villains arouse a sense of eerie, harsh cruelty, and his diverse presentations of good, hearty Russians are often lovely, imbued with romanticism, and evocative of heroism. The movie truly is filled with such a variety of remarkably gorgeous and affecting tableaux that the viewer cannot but be engrossed by the experience of watching it.


Despite its beauty, Aleksandr Nevsky is, however, often clumsy and manipulative, and these faults do detract from its overall success. The Livonian Knights, for example, are caricatures of evil and cruelty. They are enthralled by the sermons of intolerance preached by the cardinal who accompanies them, which encourage the Knights to slaughter and subjugate their enemies. In fact, the Germans are so enslaved by this cruel ideology of conquest that, having conquered Pskov, they not only massacre its inhabitants but even take the time to toss the city's children, one by one, into a bonfire. The reference Eisenstein makes with them to Nazism is both obvious and somewhat heavy-handed.


Opposed to these demons is the film's hero, who always remains somewhat distant and even otherworldly, like a heavenly being of such greatness that he is quite different from those he leads. Perhaps as a consequence of his uniqueness, Aleksandr himself plays very little part in the film. He appears to rally his people, lead the army, dispense justice, and make speeches, but few of the more intimate events depicted center on him. He guides others, but theirs are the stories told. In fact, the exploits of two Russian nobleman in the war against the Germans and elsewhere are far more central to the film than are the actions of Aleksandr. Unfortunately, they are less than fascinating characters. The director shows, for example, how the two men compete with one another in a friendly way for the hand of a woman both love, but his depiction of their competition is, frankly, hackneyed and uninteresting.


Aleksandr Nevsky is essentially a propaganda film. Eisenstein attempts to inspire his compatriots by reminding them of their ancestors' bravery, their own native virtues, and of the evil and cruelty of their enemies. Sadly, the presence of such factors gives the film a strongly didactic quality and diminishes its value as a work of art.

The director has, nonetheless, made a film so visually impressive that, despite its considerable faults, it is still able to evoke feelings of heroism. The Germans may be caricatures, but they are so brilliantly visually depicted that they emerge as fearful enemies. The Russians too may be little more than stereotypes, but the visual evocations of their virtues are beautiful enough that the viewer admires them and experiences their bravery.

Review by Keith Allen

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