History & Film: Alexander Nevsky and the Uses of Historical Fiction

Linnea Hartsuyker

“The logic behind it makes everything clearer, but only after the emotional response.” –Sergei Eisenstein 1

The film Alexander Nevsky, made in Russia by Sergei Eisenstein in 1938, is considered a seminal work of cinema, pioneering the use of montage for emotional impact and storytelling, and, most famously, dramatizing a battle on a frozen lake that has been imitated by dozens of other filmmakers. It is also undeniably a work of propaganda, upholding the values of Stalin’s regime, and demonizing the invading Germans.2

Alexander Nevsky tells the story of Grand Prince Alexander Yaroslavich Nevsky of Kiev who, in 1242 CE, defended Novgorod and other Russian states from the Teutonic Knights of the Livonian Crusade, who set out to convert the pagan and Eastern Orthodox Slavs to Roman Catholicism, but were rebuffed by Nevsky in a battle on Lake Chudskoe where the more heavily armed German knights broke through the ice and drowned.

I became interested in Prince Alexander when researching a trilogy of novels set in Viking-Age Norway. A lesser-known chapter of Viking history is that of the Rus, a band of Swedish Vikings who settled in Kiev in the late 9th century. The Rus gave the country its name, and founded the Rurikid dynasty that would rule Russia for centuries. The Rus of Kiev quickly assimilated into the local culture, while bringing their own innovations. Rurik’s daughter-in-law, the murderous Princess Helga (later Slavicized to Olga), initiated the contact with Constantinople that would bring Christianity, and her grandson Vladimir made it the religion of the land. The Rurikid dynasty spawned Ivan the Terrible, and ruled Russia until the Romanovs.

The film Alexander Nevsky introduces us to the titular character as he is fishing. His subjects sing a work song that celebrates his victory against the Swedes on the Neva River, the battle that gave him his name. Prince Alexander enjoys his placid life, but knows that soon the Russian city-states will be at war with Germany. We are then shown the city of Pskov, betrayed by its mayor, and now under the heel of the Germans, who treat its citizens brutally. They literally trample men and women underfoot, and condemn children to a bonfire, while a sinister bishop presides over the carnage.

In Novgorod, two warriors, happy Vasili and wise Gavrilo, are both in love with the beautiful Olga. Their courtship is interrupted by messengers from Pskov bringing news of the German invasion. The citizens of Novgorod argue; the merchants—the bourgeoisie—counsel appeasement, while the peasants and artisans call on Prince Alexander Nevsky to lead them to victory.

Alexander arrives, the artisans donate swords and armor, peasants emerge from their hovels into the light to take up arms, and a young woman, Vasilisa, whose father was killed in Pskov, dons chainmail and belts on a sword to go into battle. Olga promises her hand in marriage to whichever suitor acquits himself with more valor in battle will, and then Alexander leads the army out against the Germans.

Alexander Nevsky was director Sergei Eisenstein’s first film after nearly ten years of failed projects and suspicion from the Stalinist regime. It was an opportunity for both him and composer Sergei Prokofiev to redeem themselves politically. Their collaboration on Alexander Nevsky is justly famous for its closeness: Prokofiev composed sections based on Eisenstein’s storyboards, but also composed other pieces that Eisenstein edited his film to match. Because of this “The Battle on the Ice” is sometimes called “the first music video.” 3

The vagaries of politics had a strong effect on Alexander Nevsky, and not only its story and emphasis. Near the end of filming, Eisenstein fell asleep at his editing table. His assistants brought the rough cuts to Stalin, edited with a rehearsal recording of Prokofiev’s score, and missing one of the reels. However, Stalin was very happy with the film as he saw it, and those involved were too frightened of him to change anything, even adding back the reel or improving the sound quality.1

The film was a massive hit upon its release, but within two months, Stalin entered the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, a non-aggression agreement with Germany. Anti-German propaganda was no longer desired and the film was pulled from theaters. Once the Germans invaded, it was re-released, and became a hit again.

When consuming a work of historical fiction made almost 80 years ago, one must view it through a double historical lens and be aware of both the moment in which it was made, and the moment it purports to describe. Historical fiction, like any other kind of fiction, reflects the concerns and values of the era in which it is created, and the preoccupations of its makers. Some works, like Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, explicitly link two historical eras to make a point. Many more have an implicit, but no less obvious political aim, like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible commenting on McCarthyism.

Knowing the context of Alexander Nevsky’s creation makes it that much more enjoyable as a piece of fiction. In addition to bringing a Stalinist reading to Prince Alexander’s triumph, Eisenstein and Prokofiev purposefully evoke an epic grandeur in their filmmaking. Their musical and visual themes and repetitions remind a viewer of Homer’s well-worn phrases for describing moments of battle, or the virtues of his heroes.4

Similarly, many of the characters are rather flat, but in a way that evokes a folk tale or foundational legend. Prince Alexander himself arrives on scene full-formed, the perfect prince who would rather fish than fight, but will quickly rise to the occasion when called upon to defend his country. Eisenstein frequently shoots him from below as he stands, arms akimbo, a pose used by Stalin in many of his portraits.

The characters involved in the film’s romance subplot are allowed to evolve more than Prince Alexander’s handsome Stalin stand-in. Vasili and Gavrilo compete like Legolas and Gimli in Lord of the Rings over achievements in battle. But when the battle is done, they lie in the snow together, both gravely wounded, and praise each other and their fallen fellows for their valor.

There is a tendency today to value historical fiction for its ability to recreate a historical period as accurately as possible. I have tried to make the characters in my novels plausible for their era, while still acceptable to modern readers, but even that plausibility is another kind of fiction. Alexander Nevsky’s triumph is in creating a piece of fiction that does not attempt to recreate history itself, but create a new legend out of history. Prokofiev, when researching music for the film, originally wanted to use thirteenth century Russian music as his inspiration, but could not find any records. Instead he used nineteenth century themes to create what he called an “assumed vernacular” that would make viewers think of medieval Russia, without having to rediscover music that has now been lost in the mists of time.5

Similarly, the set design of Alexander Nevsky incorporates stylized Viking elements, like dragon-headed ships and wooden long-houses, while the cities of Novgorod and Pskov are dominated by huge white churches with onion domes, using symbols of past and present to create a the visual version of this assumed vernacular.

Many viewers, myself included, have wondered if there are any subversive moments this film—one made by artists who were at least sometimes in conflict with Stalin’s repressive regime. A clue may be in the beginning of the film. Russia’s sense of its place in Europe has long been complicated by its history with its Mongol—later Tatar—overlords. For centuries, Russia paid tribute to the Tatars, and when they threw off the Tatar yoke, and Peter the Great dragged Russia into the European sphere, he seemed to do so with a sense that Russia had been left behind by a Europe that had moved without them for 400 years.

Alexander Nevsky addresses this question in the first few scenes, when we see the bleached bones of battle, dead horses, and Tatar helmets on rolling fields of grass that take up almost the entire sky. This is quickly replaced by a much lower horizon, populated by the fishermen working in peace and singing a victory song. 6 After an early scene with Tatar overlords, during which Alexander neither rebels nor capitulates, he suggests that the battle with the Tatars is in the far future, while conflict with the Germans is imminent—a wonderful reversal of how in 1938, the fight with the Tatars was in the distant past, while battle with Germans was likewise imminent.

But there is also an unresolved contradiction in this scene: the peasants are celebrating a victory next to the scene of a battle they lost, and are about to be reminded of that loss when Tatar lords force them to kneel. Stalin found nothing to question in this contradiction, but perhaps the viewer can see it as undercutting of the film’s heroic message. Even if the Russians win against the Germans, a boot is still upon their necks.

Elements of Prokofiev’s score also serve to comment on the action rather than echo it. In the final one-on-one battle between the master Teutonic Knight and Prince Alexander, just before the German surrenders, a saxophone imitates a horse’s whinny, but also a laugh. This commentary is evident when the knights slip under the ice: at first the score is bombastic and heroic, until the end, when a slide trombone gives a distinctly silly note to the knights’ drownings—perhaps echoing the silliness of the styrofoam that stood in for ice, the clearly evident gasps for breath that the Germans take before they go under, or perhaps commenting on the foolishness of film’s entire enterprise.7

Alexander Nevsky’s history makes it a fascinating artifact of Soviet propaganda, but I believe it is also an enjoyable film for modern viewers in its own right. The story is broadly drawn, but still compelling. The bombast and silliness in Prokofiev’s excellent score lend it subtlety and humor. Stock but sympathetic heroes populate the film, and the visuals are stunning. Eisenstein films have been accused of having an intellectual formalism that leaves little room for emotion, but I found it quite affecting, even when the emotional strings being pulled are obvious. It is hard not to cheer for the rival suitors’ success in battle, and the woman warrior avenging her father’s death. The Battle on the Ice contains humor, excitement, and pathos, with the death of favorite characters and the unforgettable visual of a Teutonic Knight’s white cloak being pulled under after him as he sinks. The propaganda aims of the film cannot take away from its universal human drama and artistry.

1. Ronald Bergan
Sergei Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict, Overlook, 1999.
2. Paul Tatara
“Alexander Nevsky.” Turner Classic Movies website (http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/141990%7C0/Alexander-Nevsky.html). Accessed January 2, 2018.
3. Julian Day
“Alexander Nevsky (Or the Russians Are Coming!)” Limelight Magazine, April 2014.
4. Greg Dolgopolov
“Alexander Nevsky.” Sense of Cinema website (http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/cteq/alexander-nevsky/). Accessed January 2, 2018
5. Kevin Bartig
Composing for the Red Screen: Prokofiev and the Soviet Film, Oxford University Press, 2014.
6. David Bordwell
Audio commentary on Criterion Edition of Alexander Nevsky
7. Russell Merritt
“Recharging Alexander Nevsky: Tracking the Eisenstein-Prokofiev War Horse” Film Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 2, 1995.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Linnea Hartsuyker is a graduate of NYU and Cornell University. She is the author of The Half-Drowned King (Harper, 2017) and her latest novel, The Sea Queen, will be published by Harper in August 2018.

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