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Sergei Eisenstein, Alexander Nevsky (USSR, 1938)

King's Building, Strand Campus, London

1 Nov Eisenstein, Alexander Nevsky. Two medieval men in armour Part of Medieval Film Club

In 1938, the film director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948) was assigned the patriotic Alexander Nevsky by Soyuzkino (an organisation directly supervised by the Politburo) in the face of the growing threat from Nazi Germany. From its inception, the project was supposed to be a historical epic recounting the exploits of the prince, saint, and defender of Russian lands Alexander Nevsky (1221–1263). Models of Novgorod’s cathedrals were built in the Mosfilm studios, and artificial ice and snow created for the battle sequences, shot at the height of summer (the whole film was completed in just five months). The propaganda purposes of the film were above strict historical exactitude: its intention was to highlight the treachery of those opposing Soviet authority, even though the emphasis was less on the enemy within than on the threats posed by the outside world. Ancient Russian chronicles present Nevsky’s triumph as a victory of the Orthodox Church, and he was later elevated to sainthood for his heroic deeds. However, given the atheistic ideology of the Soviet state, Eisenstein underplayed associations between the Prince and the Church, presenting him ostensibly as a secular leader. Yet, undercurrents of Christian symbolism permeate the movie, such as Nevsky’s first appearance (as a humble fisherman, soon called upon by the masses) or his explicit gesture to banish the money-men from Novgorod. Following the choice of the director, the composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953) was commissioned to write the score. The fanfares played by the Teutonic Knights (whose helmets bear a striking resemblance to those of the Wehrmacht) are deliberately dissonant, in contrast to the harmonious music that invariably accompanies Nevsky and his retinue.


According to his own account (in his autobiography), Eisenstein intended a different ending for the film. After the defeat of the Germans at Lake Peipus, Nevsky would pass by the tents of the new invaders, the Tartar horde, and kneel humbly before the Khan himself, ‘winning time by his humility for building up strength’ (still in Eisenstein’s view), winning a deferred victory by the hands of his descendant and successor Dmitry Donskoy (1350–1389) in the Battle of Kulikovo (1380). On his way back home, the poisoned prince would die, looking before him at the distant plain of Kulikovo. However, Eisenstein recalls, ‘a hand other than mine drew a red pencil mark after the scene about the defeat of the Germans’, effectively stating ‘the scenario finishes here – such a fine prince could not die!’ According to at least one scholar, the censor was Josef Stalin (1878–1953) himself.


Part of the Medieval Film Club, for more information go to the website.


This screening is open to all and free to attend. No booking required.

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