The Sochi Olympics and the protests in Kiev have forced people in the United States to think about Eastern European fascism and the Russian history of charismatic strong men at the head of their government. So I finally got around to watching Alexander Nevsky, Sergei Eisenstein’s film about the Russian victory over the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus in 1242. That it’s an important film is obvious by the number of western “epic” films, Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian, that have plagiarized, or “sampled” long sequences from the famous “battle of the ice.” But Alexander Nevsky also raises an important question. Was the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany during the Second World War a victory of socialism over fascism, or a victory of Russian nationalism over German nationalism?
Alexander Nevsky is clearly anti-Nazi propaganda. The Teutonic knights, called “the Germans” even though historically most of the Catholic forces at the Battle of Lake Peipus were ethnic Estonians, are the blackest of villains. They murder prisoners in cold blood. They throw toddlers into a raging bonfire. They suborn traitors and collaborators among the Slavic people they intend eventually to exterminate. It’s also anti-Catholic — though not necessarily pro-Russian-Orthodox — propaganda. There is a high-ranking monk who looks like the Emperor Palpitine from Star Wars and a church organist who looks like Igor from Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein.
Incidentally, the most obvious example of western “sampling” of Alexander Nevsky— the ride of the Rohirrim from Return of the King — re imagines the Teutonic Knights as the good guys.
The plot — often considered the weak spot compared to the film’s technical mastery — is simple enough. Alexander Nevsky, the “prince” of Novgorod makes peace with the Mongol Horde in order to focus on the more urgent threat from the west, the Teutonic Knights. “Prince,” of course is a problematic title in a communist film and, indeed, Nevsky, played by the charismatic 6’5” actor Nikolay Cherkasov is more of a “temporary dictator” or “appointed general in chief” than a hereditary aristocrat. If he’s a “king” he’s a king in the Spartan, not the Louis XIV manner. If he’s a superman, he also mends fishing nets with “the people.” In other words, Nevsky is a populist strongman, Stalin, Castro, shirtless Vladimir Putin, or, perhaps, even Lincoln, the rail splitting superman who also became the democratic leader of the United States.
After the Teutonic Knights destroy the city of Pskov, they set their sights on Novgorod. The rich, the ruling class, the fat bourgeoisie, want to make peace. But the “people”want to appoint Nevsky supreme commander. We meet the comic relief, Vasili Buslai and Gavrilo Oleksich, two friends and rivals — think Legalos and Gimli from Lord of the Rings — who crack jokes and compete for the attention of a Russian maiden, named, appropriately enough, “Olga.” If in Lord of the Rings, it’s mainly the ruling class who get all the romantic subplots, in Alexander Nevsky it’s the common people. Even in the right-wing populist Braveheart, it’s still the hero who gets the woman, but here Nevsky is austere, above such petty concerns. Eisenstein, unlike a Hollywood film maker, has no need to give his leading man a love interest. But he gives Vasili Buslai and Gavrilo Oleksich two, the second being the daughter of a Russian boyer who was murdered by the knights in Pskov and who, like Eowyn from Return of the King, disguises herself as a man to ride into battle.
We also meet a pair of collaborators, depicted not as Trotsky or Bukharin, but simply as prosperous merchants who spout American style neoliberalism. There is no society, one of the collaborators says, only individuals and families. “Every man for himself. Home is where the hearth is.”
What’s striking about Alexander Nevsky compared to Star Wars or Lord of the Rings is its rationalism, its focus on class, not mysticism. There is no magical thinking. Nevsky beats the Teutonic Knights not because, like Aragorn, he can summon the dead or wield a magical sword, but because he’s willing to call on the people to rise up en masse against the invader. Alexander Nevsky may vilify the Catholic Church, but the Russian people don’t beat the Germans because of the superiority of the Orthodox religion. The film is not anti-religion. But, unlike Vladimir Putin, Nevsky neither makes an alliance with nor receives a blessing from the Orthodox church. There’s no hero priest fighting with the Russians against the Germans. Nevsky doesn’t pray. The film has an Aragorn but no Gandolf. What’s more, even the Battle of the Ice, while it does have Nevsky engaging in single combat against the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, features stolid Russian peasants with axes, taking down European chivalry in a workmanlike manner. It’s a proletarian, not an aristocratic victory.
So, while Alexander Nevsky may indeed, be as much of a film about Russian nationalism as it is about communist revolution, it’s more in line with the American nationalism of a World War II movie from the age of the liberal New Deal than it is in line with the aristocratic mysticism of a Star Wars or a Lord of the Rings. I’m not sure what Putin would make of Alexander Nevsky. Stalin, apparently, got to review it pre-release, and made only one cut, a scene where the Russian army gets drunk. It’s easy to see why he liked it. Nikolay Cherkasov is far and away a more charismatic figure than Viggo Mortenson. This is the guy who showed have played Aragorn, or, at least, someone like him. Nevsky embodies cool, collected authority, something Stalin, a notorious paranoid, probably aspired to. The traitors and collaborators are unable to demoralize him him, not because of his personal superiority, but because he trusts his subordinates. “Buslai would never surrender,” he says to one of the villains as he contemptuously tosses him aside.
Indeed, however much it’s aged, however badly Mosfilm may have bungled the audio, Alexander Nevsky still makes me long for an American epic, rooted not in mysticism and imaginary creatures designed to be made into toys and marketed to children, but in American history.