Smell of Popcorn

film reviews & musings by Max Lalanne

Double Feature: Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, Part One

Posted by Max Lalanne on September 9, 2012

Nikolai Cherkakov in Alexander Nevsky.

[Note: Every week or so a pair of old, classic films that deserve modern attention will be spotlighted in the “Double Feature” column.  If you have suggestions for future installments feel free to hit me up on Twitter.]

In 1938, Sergei Eisenstein, the immensely talented composer Sergei Prokofiev, and Joseph Stalin‘s favorite actor Nikolai Cherkakov were brought together to create Alexander Nevsky, a thinly-veiled propaganda piece designed to stir up proud patriotism in the Soviet people and perhaps even scare the eminent threat of German invasion away. And what better way to do that then with a 17th-century-set medieval epic, about one of Russia’s most legendary princes nobly leading his people against an assault of Teutonic knights invading his homeland — and valiantly succeeding, of course? But Alexander Nevsky, which was hastily pulled from circulation when the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact came into existence a year later, and promptly reinstated in 1941 when Adolf Hitler did invade Russia, is one of those films that go beyond their original purpose. It’s a breathlessly grand and superbly enjoyable spectacle in the greatest sense of the word, made to inspire and rouse audiences even just through the awesome power of its visuals.

The climatic Battle of the Ice — which commences roughly halfway through the film — is the main draw, and it is quite spectacular indeed when matched with Prokofiev’s resonant score. (And we still see its influence in almost every film which included an epic medieval battle.) The Teutonic knights, purportedly deeply religious yet still prone to barbarically throwing babies and infants into fires, make for a fearsome lot, charging on their horses on a frozen lake with their large square-ish helmets and billowing cloaks. But no matter, for as a victorious Alexander Nevsky sternly reminds the people of Novgorod at the very end, “He who comes to us sword in hand, by the sword shall he perish.” Yes, it’s cheesy propaganda, but do you really care after watching such a fantastic film?

A scene from Ivan the Terrible, Part One, with Cherkakov’s shadow reflected on the wall.

1944’s Ivan the Terrible, Part One, which reunites Eisenstein, Prokofiev, and Cherkakov for yet another Stalin-approved depiction of a historical figure, is quite a different beast than Alexander Nevsky. The main antagonists are not helmeted German invaders, rather scheming boyars lurking in the shadowy confines of the tsar’s castle and who oppose Ivan’s dream of a united Russia; similarly, a poisoned cup of wine is of more deadly importance here than a plain sword or an axe. Mikhail Nazvanoz and Lyudmilla Tselikovskaya give fine supporting performances, while Cherkakov dons an scraggly long beard and dark robes for his role as Ivan, willingly casting off some of his boyish good looks that he used to fully advantage in Alexander Nevsky. (But, seeing as it passed the censors with no problem, you’d have to wait until Ivan the Terrible, Part Two, which Stalin restricted until 1956, for something that offers a taste of the more unpleasant side of Tsar Ivan.)

Ivan the Terrible, Part One is murky and moody and awfully melodramatic, and Eisenstein certainly recognized the acute difference in style and milked it to full potential when it came to the visuals. With his cinematographer Andrew Moskvin, Eisenstein expertly played with harsh shadows and light and the extreme ends of the available black-and-white spectrum to create lavishly detailed (all those heavily bejeweled Russian costumes help) and striking aesthetics that even bring to mind that of Citizen Kane, in some scenes. While the story might not be as easily captivating and rousing as Alexander Nevsky, if you can get into it, it’s rewarding enough. Both are classics in their own way, and more than deserve to be seen outside the limited realm of  film studies classes and scholarly lectures, that is, if you don’t mind sitting through a bit of Soviet propaganda — and two very fine films.

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