Join Ettes leader Coco Hames as she moves through the Janus Films Essential Art House DVD box set one film at a time.
ALEXANDER NEVSKY directed by SERGEI EISENSTEIN (1938)
Russian with English subtitles
Running time: 108 minutes
In this first film in the Janus Essential Art House collection — Alexander Nevsky (the films go alphabetically) — we get a pretty awesome Heimatfilm about pride and the guts and glory of the people who will fight to protect their home. It's got a pretty straightforward set-up and follow-through, and it is deeply satisfying as battle movies go, because our hero is righteous and true, and the bad guys are just so BAD (throwing toddlers into fire, etc.). Even though Soviet officials were leaning on director Eisenstein not to try any of his old "formalist" tricks — basically, the editing experiments and bold compositions that made propaganda pieces like Battleship Potemkin and Strike not boring — it's still exciting.
I'm not sure if it's the translation, an artistic choice, or if Russian is just a straight-up poetic language, but the dialogue delivers just line after line of thought-provoking commentary (in a good way). After losing favor with Stalinist censors for his 1929 agrarian reform film The General Line, Eisenstein left for a brief stay in Hollywood (where he met Walt Disney!) and an ill-fated project in Mexico. When he got back, his Soviet film boss kept trying to get him in trouble. That guy ended up getting taken out and shot. Score one for Eisenstein!
Alexander Nevsky was Eisenstein's return to form after nearly a decade of struggling. It didn't kick off so great at first — the movie was yanked from release when Stalin signed a short-lived treaty with Hitler. But when Hitler broke that treaty, Alexander Nevsky was played in every movie theater in Russia, since the bad guys in Nevsky are Germans. It must work as propaganda — after all, one of the first things the invaders do in Red Dawn is screen it for the locals.