Friday night, Amy got discounted tickets to see the Baltimore Symphony and Choral Arts Society do Alexander Nevsky, that grand Russian cinematic-orchestral masterpiece by Sergei Eisenstein and Alexander Prokofiev, depicting 13th Century Russia’s war against Teutonic invaders. For a 1930s Soviet propaganda film aimed at rousing the communist state to patriotic fervor against the Nazis, Nevsky is visually and aurally superb. Prokofiev’s score was played/sung live by the BSO and Choral Arts Society alongside the film’s own synchronized audio: no small feat in dealing with work from the early days of sounded film. Through the performance, conductor Yuri Temirkanov had to split his attention between watching the projection screen and timing the music to match actions, film cuts, and visual interludes.
Of course, being a political work, Nevsky is brimming with Marxist and Stalinist wartime symbolism. The Prince Alexander Nevsky, resting from his victory over the Swedes, works as a fisherman — how classically proletariat! — and deigns to wear the princely mantle only when the City of Novgorod calls upon him to repulse the invading Teutons. (Or, as they are called in this pre-WWII work, “The Germans!”) In Novgorod, rich merchants sound out their preference for compromise and tribute — filthy capitalists, the lot of them — and are shouted down by the city’s militant working class. The “German” invaders are evil Christian crusaders: white-clad, cross-adorned, bucket-helmed knights led by wrinkled, old, crucifix-bearing bishops. The invaders sack the city of Pskov, butcher its unrepentant soldiers, and burn helpless infants in holocaust fire. (The “holocaust” effect is accomplished with plain old forced perspective: hooded bishops against a backdrop of far-off smoke and flame, dropping the poor babies off the bottom of the screen to their “fiery deaths.”)
Portraying the allegorical Nevsky-Stalin who leads the allegorical Novgorod-USSR into the allegorical Teutonic Wars-WWII, actor Nikolai Cherkosov hams up the hero role to comical proportions. Every shot of the prince is a beauty shot, every pose a puff-chested, tight-fisted, craggy-faced pageant of one, calculated to win over the Soviet commoner with expansive gestures and massive doses of princely charm. (One wonders if Eisenstein was making subtle hints about Stalin through Cherkosov’s almost blatant overacting.)
The movie is worth seeing just for the buildup to the epic “Battle on the Ice” on Lake Chudskoye. Half the impact is achieved by Prokofiev’s score, eschewing traditional 13th Century Russian music in favor of a marshal drumbeat. Eisenstein pulls a few choice closeup shots of the advancing German soldiers, consisting of white-cloaked knights rocking back and forth as though on horses, while the pennants of their charge fly past behind them. By today’s CG bullet-time standards, those shots would be laughable (Yes, I laughed) but on closer inspection, they are masterful pieces of visual composition, especially for the limited resources of the day.
Don’t knock this movie for being old and Communist. If you appreciate a seamless melding of classical music and filmmaking, and if you were able to stomach DW Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation, then give Alexander Nevsky a try.