Eisenstein’s final film (he’d planned a third part but died after starting to film it) follows the now very much de rigueur pattern of splitting its story into two separate films, though one would assume given its Soviet origins this wasn’t done for commercial reasons. Indeed, the second part was shelved for 12 years following its completion because apparently Stalin was disconcerted with the portrayal of his great hero Ivan. Knowing this obviously lends some compelling subtext to Nikolai Cherkasov’s portrayal of the increasingly paranoid and despotic ruler, though the first film has him posing far more innocently, adopting all those heroic poses he’d already mastered in Alexander Nevsky (1938). There’s a huge amount of beauty to Eisenstein’s framing, all glowering black-and-white close-ups of the principal characters — a huge amount of the drama is conveyed not through dialogue but by the movement of the actors’ eyes, and the frenetic mien of their expressionistic faces. In many ways, it’s like a modern soap opera, as bitter rivals grimace at one another, or go for hugs while revealing their true feelings to the camera over the other character’s shoulder. Much of the film takes place indoors, in cavernous chambers and long hallways, which means the lighting design and use of shadows is at times spectacular. The second part gets progressively darker, until, in a moment of surprise, there’s almost a dance sequence in (slightly reddishly-degraded) colour, before things lapse back to the previous stark monochrome. With a lot of the thematic development done via acting and staging, it’s the kind of film which would surely repay repeat viewings, but the central thrust of its thesis is nevertheless as evident to us as it must have been to Stalin.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Sergei Eisenstein Сергей Эйзенштейн; Cinematographer Andrei Moskvin Андрей Москвин and Eduard Tisse Эдуа́рд Тиссэ́; Starring Nikolai Cherkasov Никола́й Черка́сов; Length 187 minutes (split into two parts of 99 and 88 minutes respectively).
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 2 May 2016.
By 1938, Sergei Eisenstein was already a celebrated filmmaker (not least for his masterful 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin), but one increasingly held at arm’s length by the Soviet authorities. His previous film, Bezhin Meadow (1937, see extras below), was suppressed, so on the grand patriotic canvas of Alexander Nevsky, he was assigned a co-director (Dmitri Vasilyev) and a co-screenwriter to keep him in check. They needn’t have worried because he turns in a very watchable epic about the resistance mounted against the invading Teutons by the reassuringly ordinary Prince Alexander of the title (Nikolai Cherkasov). Of course, given the historical context, one can’t help but draw the parallels between the noble suffering Soviet people and the threat posed by Hitler’s Nazis (and Roman Catholics, besides) invading from the West. Nevsky is introduced as an ordinary man, fishing in a lake among the people, though as soon as the Mongols ride up to address him, he’s all arms akimbo against the sky, the heroic everyman who shines as a beacon of hope and strength. Indeed, the presentation of Nevsky is consistently as heroic as one can imagine, almost to the point of self-mocking campness, and perhaps this is Eisenstein’s point. In any case, the film moves ahead with a fairly straightforward narrative, and culminates with a frenzied battle scored to Prokofiev’s music, with a little romantic subplot along the way involving Nevsky’s compatriots Vasili (Nikolai Okhlopkov) and Gavrilo (Andrei Abrikosov).
Criterion Extras: There’s a significant section on Eisenstein’s lost previous film, with a reconstruction of it from what materials remain (the first and last frames of each shot), which can’t help but be a shadowy approximation of the original but does at least prove it had some gloriously beautiful images.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Sergei Eisenstein Сергей Эйзенштейн and Dmitri Vasilyev Дмитрий Васильев; Writers Eisenstein and Pyotr Pavlenko Пётр Павле́нко; Cinematographer Eduard Tisse Эдуа́рд Тиссэ́; Starring Nikolai Cherkasov Никола́й Черка́сов, Nikolai Okhlopkov Никола́й Охло́пков, Valentina Ivashova Валентина Ивашёва [as “Vera Ivashova”]; Length 111 minutes.
Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 3 April 2016).
This box set brings together Eisenstein’s surviving sound films Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1944/1958), as well as fragments from his lost Bezhin Meadow (1937). I’d count those surviving ones as two films, except that Ivan pioneers the now standard industry practice of splitting a single epic story into two films, the second of which was so disliked by Stalin that it didn’t see a release until after his death. The director’s reputation was made by a series of silent films (not released by Criterion, presumably for rights reasons), but there’s still plenty of interest to this set. Indeed, the images in both films are so striking and singular that one can only hope for a Blu-ray remastering. Nevertheless, this is still essential cinema.