Alexander Nevsky is usually considered one of director Sergei Eisenstein’s lesser works, in part because it is assumed its relative accessibility results from Socialist Realist apparatchiki imposing the Stalinist party-line. Not as overtly experimental as Eisenstein’s earlier work, it is on first blush the cinematic equivalent of the simple, patriotic art promoted by Stalin, although the contradictory reactions it inspires makes one suspect that the director had other things in mind. Nonetheless, if the film is discussed at all, it is usually because of the oft-imitated battle on the ice sequence, and because of the score by Prokofiev.
A viewer innocent of these issues could be forgiven for just enjoying Nevsky as an excessive, sometimes brilliant and occasionally winningly silly movie. Theoretically, it dramatizes the resistance by the Russian population, led by patriot prince Alexander Nevsky (Nikolai Cherkasov), to hordes of invading Teutonic Knights. “Theoretically,” because you can never mistake Nevsky for a human being. He is so “heroic,” he’s practically a moving statue, while the bad guys are really bad, conceived more as striking, hyperbolic images than as characters. Their conflict is grandiloquent, over-sized, “realistic” only in the sense of the physical tangibility of the film image. The few characters depicted in any detail, such as Buslai (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo (Andrei Abrikosov), two warriors competing for Olga (Valentian Ivashova), or the patriotic armorer Ignat (Dmitriy Orlov) full of folk wisdom, are no less diagrammatic. They just figure as “everyday heroes” rather than “larger than life leader,” in order to show their struggle as a broad, community effort.
The “silliness” results from the efforts to make these moving icons both larger than life and believable in an everyday fashion, with close to comically exaggerated results. Sometimes, the humor is intentional, such as with Buslai, a good-natured lunkhead whose bravado borders on the bumptious. At the other extreme, the Teutonic Knights, practically oozing evil, throw Russian babies squalling and squirming into the fire in an action so gratuitously cruel, you can’t help but laugh, even as you wince.
That is just one of the many powerfully evocative images. The battle on the ice is famous at least in part because of Eisenstein’s ability to reduce the conflict to moments of sheer, inexplicable horror, such as the images of the knights slowly sinking into the water, frantically, vainly grasping at chunks of ice, or the fields of corpses after the battle is over. And as large scale as the action may be, this is not so much epic history as history as rhetoric, with one flourish after another obliterating the need for understanding or analysis.
Alexander Nevsky is unlikely to make anyone feel he or she knows one whit more about Russian history. But you know you’ve undeniably experienced something, far beyond the capacity of rational description. If it feels vaguely as if it’s taking place on the surface of Mars, that just adds to its bizarre fascination.