This year, Russia's Alexander Nevsky (screening at Emory University on Wed., Dec. 3) celebrates the 70th anniversary of creating one of the most powerful battle scenes ever committed to film. When contending Russian and German armies clash on a frozen lake, director Sergei Eisenstein creates the template for seemingly all cinematic battles to come. You can find Alexander Nevksy's bloodline in global epics from Ran to Braveheart to Mongol.
Eisenstein is best known for the still thrilling "Odessa Steps" scene in his silent film Battleship Potemkin. If you've ever seen a baby carriage roll down steps in a movie, it's an Eisenstein reference. In Alexander Nevsky, Eisenstein demonstrates his magic with screen composition, editing and crowd control when Prince Alexander (Nikolai Cherkasov) rallies the working Russian folk against rapacious German invaders. Stirring Prokofiev music accompanies the Teutonic charge across the ice, but Eisenstein switches to harrowing ambient noise when the battle is joined, proving his mastery with sound design as well as cinematic visuals.
Some aspects of Alexander Nevsky haven't aged so well, and one gets a sneaking suspicion that the art direction inspired Monty Python and the Holy Grail. One evil German sports what appears to be a giant bird talon atop his helmet, while another has an outstretched gilded palm on his: I thought of them as General Chickenfoot and General Talk-To-The-Hand. Disquietingly, the Germans commit ghastly atrocities while posing as devout Christians, carrying crucifixes and marching into battle at the exhortation of the clergy. The film reminds viewers both of the religious wars of earlier eras and the Soviet Union's heritage as an atheistic state.
Alexander Nevsky qualifies as a brilliant propaganda film, intended to rally Russians against the (justifiable) threat of 1930s German aggression. Cherkasov's Nevsky resembles a 13th-century equivalent to a Soviet-era poster's iconic hero when he strides around with hands on hips, chest puffed up. Eisenstein argues that Nevksy isn't as important as his movement, and the director specializes in heroic shots of scruffy, craggy peasants. Despite its veneration of the title character, Alexander Nevsky feels almost revolutionary in its willingness to give credit to the ordinary people who sacrifice their lives on the battlefields.