Aleksandr Nevskiy (1938) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

It really isn't easy to relate to the great Russian movies. Aleksandr Nevsky was made about the same time as Grand Illusion, but while the French movie looks like it could have been made in 1980, the Russian movie looks more like it was made in 1880



  • Camera movement is rare. Most scenes involve a static camera, fixed on a mounted location, with no pans or zooms, and many of the set-ups seem to go on forever. People act in front of it as if it were a filmed record of a stage play. In fact, you would see far more activity in a modern stage play than you will see in many of these scenes. People seem to be posing. My girlfriend, who is Russian and could at least figure out what was going on, kept asking me why everyone was just standing around posing and doing nothing. Yeah, like I'm going to explain a Russian movie to a Russian.
  • Characterization is almost non-existent. There is only one person in the movie (a strong, but loveable Russian warrior) who we get to know.
  • Plot can be summarized in about three sentences. Germans are coming. Russians in Novgorod call for the legendary fisherman-prince, Nevsky, to be their leader. He gets the Germans on a frozen lake, and kicks their butts.
  • There really isn't much in the way of dialogue. People make speeches until it is time for somebody else to make a speech.
  • Although it was a Russian guy (Stanislavsky) who invented the modern style of acting popularized by Strasberg's Actor's School, that school of acting had no influence on this movie. The actors here recite their lines as if in a 19th century version of Macbeth. (Elya tells me that they also speak very stilted old-fashioned Russian, something like Shakespearian English, making the artificiality even more pronounced)
  • Although the musical score is magnificent (Prokoviev), it sounds like it's playing on some old 78s from your grandfather's basement. I read in the IMDb that some guy saw the film with a live performance by an orchestra and chorus. I'll bet that would be stirring, and I would go to see that, but it's a weak audio on the DVD, and Sergei Eisenstein knew nothing about sound. (He was a famous silent film director, and this was his first full-length sound film)
  • The portrayals are completely romanticized, even more than in Hollywood films. For example, all the peasants have good boots, good teeth, and clean clothing with no rips or tears in it. 
  • The Germans are cartoon bad guys with Satanic head gear, who twirl their moustaches and throw Russian babies into the fire! Pure propaganda. (Remember this was made in 1938. Stalin reportedly had this film playing in EVERY Russian theater in 1941, after the German invasion)
  • The special effects will make you laugh, unless you're really impressed by the realism in Captain Scarlet. The Germans who drown are obviously wrestling with styrofoam ice floes that flip around and around like air mattresses, even though they are supposed to represent ice a foot thick!
  • The famous battle scene, although impressive in scope, is something like 30 minutes long (about 20 minutes too long)

So why is this film so famous, and so highly respected? A few reasons:

  • The Russian people love it as their epic. Nevsky is to Russia as George Washington is to the USA, a mighty warrior, a great leader, a founder. This film brought to life the struggle of Russians to form Russia in a time when they were in the midst of a pincer attack between the Germans from the West, the Swedes from the North, and the Horde from the East. Alexander Nevsky defeated two of the three, and symbolizes Russia's survival as a nation against seemingly hopeless odds.
  • Just as important, the film is just as much about the Germans of 1938 as it is about the Germans of the 13th century. If you look carefully, you'll see that the German bishops are even wearing crosses that look like swastikas. Apparently the director, Eisenstein, had included some actual swastikas on their battle flags as well, with Stalin's full approval, but that footage was cut when Hitler and Stalin signed their non-aggression pact in the 30's, and was no longer available for a 1941 restoration. With or without that footage, the propaganda message was that anybody who comes to the Russian soil with a sword will die by the sword. Unless he dies of boredom when forced to watch classic Russian movies.
  • The visuals are very impressive and very strange. For example, the German bishops set up a tent in the snow, complete with stylized crosses, choreographed ceremonies, outré costumes, and an organist who looks like Nosferatu and moves like Lon Cheney in the Phantom of the Opera. Really weird stuff, striking, and dramatic. (Elya tells me that it was normal in the Stalinist era to portray foreigners in Russian movies as being far stranger than they really are, and it was politically necessary in the official atheist state to portray all religion as ritualistic mumbo-jumbo. I have to say that they certainly succeeded on both counts.)

I think I've mentioned before that the cinematic tradition of many countries came out of the stage legacy, but the greatest Russian filmmakers came from the ranks of poets and painters, not dramatists, and these Russian movies are very much like paintings that move.

And they move slowly.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • 4:3 aspect ratio, satisfactory transfer

  • no features

I can't recommend it to you as a movie that is still natural and easy to watch today. It isn't. It is a chore. It is stilted and artificial.

On the other hand, it is educational. It is strange. It is beautiful in an odd way, and the battle scenes must involve about a zillion guys. It is a landmark part of the evolution of cinema.

But it's for scholars now, not for normal people.

The Critics Vote

  • Maltin 4/4.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.8. Way too high. This score is in respect to the legacy of Eisenstein, but is not merited by the movie. It might be that high if you considered just the visuals and Prokoviev's score, and if they were both represented properly.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Almost unwatchable. Only for film students.

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