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Essay: Alexander Nevsky by Sergei Eisenstein (film)

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  • Published: 15 November 2019*
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“Alexander Nevsky” by Sergei Eisenstein is a historical film that gained so much recognition since its release to the public in 1938, then was removed due to peace treaty with Germany and came back onto screens in 1941 after German invaded Russia. It functions as a depiction of a heroic figure, Alexander Nevsky, in a fiery battle against Leuvonian Teutonic Knights to protect his homeland and a call for patriotism as well as national unity during the turbulent situation. Especially, the film is most renowned for its legendary “Dawn of Anxious Waiting” and “Battle on the Ice” sequence that not only satisfy the audience’s eyes but also exert a great impact on the following generation of filmmakers regarding constructing battle scenes. The audio, visual and language in this sequence are perfectly combined in such a way that underscores the harshness of the war, greatness of Alexander Nevsky and his army, and the loss plus jeer-worthiness of German side.

The film paints Prince Alexander out as a Russian hero and national pride. In 1242, the kingdom is under imminent threat from the Teutonic Knights, who already conquered the city of Pskov and planned on invading Novgorod. In that situation, some leaders call forth a peaceful agreement with the Teutonians but it was soon outvoted and rejected as the citizens wanted to fight back and claim their territorial rights. And upon being summoned, Alexander Nevsky took charge of the Russian side, formed an army of Novgorod commoners and freed the nation form the outsiders. In a decisive battle on the ice, Germans were lured onto the melting ice of lake Chudskoe, which couldn’t withstand the weight of the horses and knights and ended up cracking and drowning them. Russian army won the battle and came back in celebration and applause while the Germans and traitors were dragged and traded shamefully.

First, a historical context behind “Alexander Nevsky” should be taken into account. Released in 1938, the film clearly expressed a strained and uneasy relationship between Soviet Union and Germany. Coming to power in 1933, Hitler ran a propaganda against Soviet, trying to suppress its economy and social development. Together with that anti-communism propaganda, the failure in European appeasement policy largely contributed to USSR’s considerable pressure. The film, as a representative voice, calls for power and confidence against fascism. Also, this historic stage saw the rise of “socialist realism”, a form of art that revolves around communist values. And “Alexander Nevsky” is a production of this movement.

When addressing “Dawn of Anxious Waiting” and “Battle on the Ice” in particular and the film in general, the symbolisms it presents are mention-worthy. One of the very first symbolisms appearing on screen is nature, especially the lake. The link between Russian people and nature is inseparable: from the beginning scene, peasants fish on the lake to the battle on ice is also on another lake, Lake Peipus. Lakes range from Russian people’s means of livelihood to the powerful weapon drowning the enemies to death. And the Russian army sacrifice their blood, sweat, tears to protect their land. The intimacy and interdependence between Russian and nature is undeniable. The second symbolism is the contradiction of colors. In traditional folklore or anybody’s sensation, white presents purity and kindness while black symbolizes evil and cruelty. But during the battle, Russian dress in black and German dress in white, which completely contrasts with the sin they made in the sacking of Pskov. A plausible explanation for Russian color is their earthiness and intimate relationship with nature. The conflict in color does not confuse the story but even clarifies and highlights the conflict between two sides.

The film is a legendary also because of the astounding combination of visual and audio. Firstly, Einstein made an effecive use of action, facial expression and costumes to underscore the difference between good and evil. Alexander always stays calm yet focused and uses encouraging language as a leader: “For Rus’ “, “We shall die where we stand”, “Take courage, son of Novgorod”, ““Those who come to us in peace will be welcome. But those who come to us sword in hand will die by the sword! On that Russia stands and will stand forever!”. Also, the scenes during the waiting change alternately from the motion (German army is approaching) to the motionless (Alexander and his warrior) to emphasize the greatness and fearlessness of Russian army. Each frame in the waiting has the same color tone: dark on the left and gradually turns brighter to white moving right. That lighting makes the audience move their eyes horizontally to get a panoramic view and see what the warriors were seeing. Moreover, some shots are nothing but empty white space which intensifies the anxiety because we don’t know what happens next, where and when the German come from. When the German is approaching and the battle begins, the camera angles work really well. The zoom out helps audience see the whole violent, agressive and turbulent scene and the huge number of soldiers; the zoom in focuses on facial expression and symbolism.

The waiting and fighting scene is incomplete without the accompaniment of music. The music started out slow and mysterious. As the fighting is drawing nearer, it speeds up and grows more dramatic. Later, the German horn is in use to grow excitement as well as fear among the audience. When the fight starts, all music is gone; all we can hear is the actual sound of sword clashing, men screaming, horse hopping,… After Alexander says :”For Rus’ “ and waves his sword, the music is turned on again but with quick, upbeat and fun rhythm, which even though at first sounds unrelated to the intense and agression there but actually makes us more excited and cannot take our eyes off the screen.

With an effective use of audio and visual under an accurate history context, Einstein succeeded in portraying a national heroic figure and awake patriotism among the people through vivid waiting and battle scene. That’s why it is an epic and legendary movie that set a prime example for and is a source of inspiration for the filmmaker generation to come.

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