Friday, January 27, 2012

Soviet Propaganda Offensive via Films: Socialist Realism, Propaganda, and Alexander Nevsky


Soviet cinema traditionally was on the forefront of the exploration of the camera as a tool of narrative. Dziga Vertov with his seminal series Kino Pravda (Camera Truth), and his film Man With the Movie Camera, where he experimented with cinema verite, Sergei Eisenstein, with Battleship Potyomkin, Ivan the Terrible, and Alexander Nevsky are acknowledged greats in the history of film making. I shall use Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky as a tool to analyse his techniques of propaganda. In process, I shall review the film, and analyze it for historical authenticity. I acknowledge that the origins of the story are in the hoary past, and thus Eisenstein had a lot of creative license; what I shall analyse is how he used the said license. In addition, I shall also use historical information to add detail and perspective the this analysis.
Alexander Nevsky was the first film made by Eisenstein with sound. With a soundtrack provided by Prokofiev, (who composed notable 20th century compositions like Peter and the Wolf), and strong acting by Nikolay Cherkasov, with his booming baritone, the impact of the film was immense. It is a part of the Criterion Collection (which provides important classic and contemprary films to home viewer markets)1. This film was important for Eisenstein, because it was his first film after Old and New, which released in 19292 Indeed, it was a political comeback for him too, after the destruction and suppression of prints of his film, and his denouncement (both to the Central committee, and to Stalin), for excessive formalism in the film3. After protracted conflict between his denouncers, and him, he came up clean, and was given a chance to make a historical film. He chose the renowned saint Alexander Nevsky, possibly because so little is known about his life except his exploits as a military leader. 4
Representation of Alexander Nevsky
Nikolay Cherkasov was such a success in acting as Alexander Nevsky, that most of the future representations were based off his image in the film. For example, this central section from a triptych made by Pavel Korin, who was the People's artist for USSR, and a winner of both the Lenin and the Stalin prize,5 clearly is based off the initial scene in Alexander Nevsky, when Alexander meets with the representatives of the golden horde. This image was also used in a commemorative stamp issued by USSR in 19676 Eisenstein famously said that “the whole world will soon believe that the real Nevsky was just like my actor.7 It didn't hinder Eisenstein's cause that Cherkasov was a celebrated actor in his own right and was the Bolshoi and also received the Stalin Prize. His importance can be illustrated by the fact that he is buried in the Cemetery of the Masters in Alexander Nevsky Lavra (Saint Alexander Nevsky Monastery)
Possibly because Eisenstein made this film to redeem himself in the eyes of Stalin and the central committee, the film is a prime example of socialist realism. The prominent role of religion in the film is mostly negative, with the invaders being Christians. In addition, they have a generally fear iinciting appearance, with the knights wearing helmets that have talons, hands and horns on them. In addition, the church officials look even more fearsome, with their black capes, and shriveled old visages. There is also a notable excess of crosses that are raised and lowered in the moments of excess by the Teutonic Knights, and more often then not, they are accompanied by ominous Gregorian chant. As an interesting side note, the organist looks remarkably like death personified in Bergman's The Seventh Seal (however, this film was released almost two decades after Nevsky, so it can be safe to assume that if there is a connection, Bergman took his inspiration from Eisenstein) In addition, the music played is remarkably ominous. It comes as a relief, when in the climactic battle scene, the organist is thrown off his organ in the middle of playing his lament.
The Teutonic Knights
The Teutonic Knights were a medieval military order. They were formed during the crusades, to aid and assist the pilgrims in the holy land. Outlawed by Hitler during the Nazi regime, they are regarded as symbols of Germany in eastern Europe, especially Poland, Russia, Lithuania, and the other Baltic states, all of which came under their possession in by the 12th century. Indeed, Eisenstein uses the image of Teutonic knights to great effect to signify Germany. They were involved in significant conflicts, like the battle of Tannenburg, against the Poles, et cetera. One of their enduring representations is in the book The Teutonic Knights, by the Polish Nobel Laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz, which also uses the Battle of Tannenburg in its climax. Nazi Propaganda made frequent references to the Teutonic Conquests in their claims for lebensraum, So much so that Himmler tended to perceive of the SS as a modern day manifestation of the Teutonic Knights8
Another important theme is the almost rabid anti-Nazi flavor in the film. The previously mentioned fearsome black clad church official actually has shapes that remarkably resemble the Nazi swastika. In addition, the aggressors are Teutonic knights and are adorned with iron crosses. The knights also commit acts of increasing cruelty where they throw women and children into fires. They hang innocent citizens, and generally act like typecast xenophobic villainous hoodlums. The flags of the Teutonic Knights are also emblazoned with a shape surprisingly like the German imperial eagle. To top it all off, the helmets the soldiers wear are reminiscent of WW2 German standard issue helmets. Indeed, the film was so patriotic and inflammatory that it was taken off the theater soon after its release, because USSR and Germany entered into the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, which was a mutual non violence pact. This blacklisting of sorts was revoked as soon as hostilities commenced between USSR and Germany in 1941. So much so that it was showcased in most of the theaters in USSR. 9
Molotov Ribbentrop Pact
The reason Alexander Nevsky was taken off the box office was the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact, which was a mutual nonaggression pact between USSR and Germany. As a part of the pact, there were secret arrangements dividing Europe in German and soviet spheres of influence in case of any new real estate appropriation. This appropriation occurred after the German invasion of Poland, after which USSR radically increased the area under its control. As a part of this pact, the Comintern halted all anti-Nazi propaganda, in all parts under its control. Soon after, a convoluted trading provision was appended to this pact. Soon after, USSR proposed to have a continental bloc to oppose the Americans and the British. All these megalomaniac preparations were put to a halt with the initiation of Operation Barbarossa, which led to the abandonment of the pact, and multiple screenings of Alexander Nevsky and other nationalistic films.
Another important theme is the patriotism shown in the film. Eisenstein paints a terrible picture of the state of Russia, surrounded on one side by the Horde, and on the other by the Germans. Nevsky calls on the common men and women from Novgorod to fight for Russia, Both men and women, young and old answer the call. This was mirrored in real life. With many women serving in the armed forces of USSR in WW2. In a way, the symbolic trait that can be seen is patriotism towards not the Rus, but towards a proto-proletarian state. The theme of the working men saving Novgorod, and by extension Russia10 is very important. The Teutonic Knights are comprised of a few knights, and their vassals who blindly and uniformly jump into war and pray, whereas Nevsky's army is comprised of ordinary Novgordian workers. The nobles and merchants of Novgorod are ineffectual and almost wanted to bend over backwards to accommodate the Teutonic Knights, hence they are banished from the city. Another clue for this Proto-Proletarian entity comes to light when the Novgrodian soldiers free the foot soldiers of the Teutonic Knights, because they were simply following orders from their masters. This action acts on two levels. Firstly, it equalizes them with the Novgrodians, and secondly it goes with the official USSR policy of the overthrow of the bourgeoisie.
It is evident from the analysis till now that Eisenstein was, by making this movie, following the official Communist party diktat. However, if he had only concentrated on portraying Alexander Nevsky, he would have ended up with something that resembled a newsreel, full of people dressed up like the older days. His inclusion of Vasily and Gavrilo, notable characters in Russian folklore11 12 makes the film instantly relatable to the Russian masses. In addition, their Love triangle gives the film a human element. Also important to recognize the fact that Eisenstein's genius lies not in the fact that he took a folk hero and used him to make a anti German film. His genius lied in the fact that he used some very distinct tropes to make the film relatable and incisive. Prime amongst those, and already mentioned is the trope of all the bourgeois being evil, which would strike a chord in the soviet masses.
Also important is the idea of religion being corrupt and militant. This is evident from the fact that the Teutonic Knights were a Christian organization, something Eisenstein gleefully uses again and again. Combining this with the Knight's atrocities, he immediately associates the church with them.
In addition, he used the baser human urges, like xenophobia (The invading Germans are not Russians after all), the underdog winning (the film depicts the Russians having inferior Armour, and out numbered ).13 These all combine to make a masterpiece of propaganda film-making. It furthermore made a grand allegory to the soviet situation in the late 1930's, surrounded by the belligerent Germany on one side, and Japan on the other. The film makes Alexander Nevsky a messiah like figure, analogous to the personality cult of Stalin. In addition to the role of propaganda work, we need to realize that this film was also Eisenstein's comeback vehicle. As such, he needed to appease both the Central Committee, and more importantly, Stalin. For all practical purposes, it appears he did make Stalin happy. He did get the Stalin Prize.14
History Vs Eisenstein
“Prince Alexander and all the men of Novgorod drew up their forces by the lake, at Uzmen, by the Raven's Rock; and the Germans and the Estonians rode at them, driving themselves like a wedge throughout their army. And there was a great slaughter of Germans and Estonians... they fought with them during the pursuit on the ice seven versts short of the Subol [north-western] shore. And there fell a countless number of Estonians, and 400 of the Germans, and they took fifty with their hands and they took them to Novgorod.”15
The [Russians] had many archers, and the battle began with their bold assault on the king's men [Danes]. The brothers' banners were soon flying in the midst of the archers, and swords were heard cutting helmets apart. Many from both sides fell dead on the grass. Then the Brothers' army was completely surrounded, for the Russians had so many troops that there were easily sixty men for every one German knight. The Brothers fought well enough, but they were nonetheless cut down. Some of those from Dorpat escaped from the battle, and it was their salvation that they fled. Twenty brothers lay dead and six were captured16
As these two different quotations illustrate, there are no accurate sources for the doings of Alexander Nevsky, just word of mouth, and alterable, easily destroyed records. This was probably one of the reasons Eisenstein used Nevsky's story to make a propaganda film. For all we know, Eisenstein's representation of the battle on ice, which inspired Kurosawa in the 7 samurai, and countless other filmmakers, might actually be factually correct. Most of our sources from that time are the chronicles of Novgorod, and the accounts of the Teutonic Knights. Both of these accounts are so contradictory, that they are obviously biased. The crusaders are firm in their belief that all Russians are pagans who need to be converted, and all the Russians are firm in their belief that the Germans are oppressors, who will destroy their lifestyles. In the given situation, all we can do is take all the information at its face value, and decide what we prefer, and what makes sense in the given paradigm. And there Lies the genius of Eisenstein. Because nobody can separate his film from History.
Alexander Nevsky: Later In the Lives Of Eisenstein, Nevsky, and Nevsky the movie.
One of the apocryphal stories that go around Eisenstein aficionado circles is that he was displeased with the movie, because it was poorly edited, (at least by his standards) and was truncated because of circumstances. Even if it is so, Alexander Nevsky, in addition to The Battleship Potemkin is widely regarded as one of the seminal works of cinema in the first half of the 20th century. Countless filmmakers have studied Eisenstein's usage of montage, and have learned from it. I studied the final battle scene from Alexander Nevsky, for film studies, where the instructors considered it amongst the best edited and shot sequences till date. In addition, the soundtrack for this film, by Prokofief is regarded as a masterwork of music and film. The impact this film has had on the art of film-making is immeasurable.
In addition to that, it is arguable that this film possibly saved Eisenstein's life. Stalin was notorious for purging the people who displeased him, and Eisenstein had already been denounced once. This film actually resulted in him getting the Stalin Prize, and redeemed him from the fiasco of Que Viva Mexico and Bezhin Meadow.
Eisenstein went on to work on his trilogy on Ivan the terrible, which he could never complete because of his untimely death. Cherkasov went on to act in Don Quixote, and was the People's Artist of the Soviet Union. Alexander Nevsky, became a grand prince, and was canonized.
Entertainment, Enjoyment, and General Sit down and Have Fun Value: 8/10
As strange as it may sound, this is one propaganda film that is fun to watch. I sat down with my friends and watched the film from start to finish. At one hour and fifty minutes, it is not terribly long, plus Eisenstein's editing is sharp, and to the point. The film does not drag at all, and the soundtrack complements the shots. It is overall a vary enjoyable experience. In addition, Cherkasov, once in a while, has a tendency to go cross eyed, which leads to very humorous interludes.
Historical Value: 6/10
This film is obvious propaganda, and I refuse to believe that roman catholic priests would wear a swastika on their caps, especially when they had enough iconography to fill volumes upon volumes. However, I am willing to concede that there must be some historical merit in the film. Due to the lack of concrete historical evidence, I will give it a 6, for getting the bigger picture right.

Suggested Reading

  1. Taylor, Richard. Film propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. 2nd rev. ed. London: I.B. Tauris, 1998.
  2. W. Gallez, Douglas. "The Prokofief-Eisenstien Collaboration: "Nevsky" and "Ivan" revisited." Cinema Journal 17, no. 2 (1978)
  3. Clubb, Issa. "Alexander Nevsky - From the Current - The Criterion Collection." The Criterion Collection. http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/8-alexander-nevsky (accessed January 27, 2012).

Bibliography

"About Criterion." The Criterion Collection. http://www.criterion.com/about_us (accessed January 26, 2012).

"Biography of Pavel Korin (Russian) ." Karossvere Karefe. www.c-cafe.ru/days/bio/1/059.php (accessed January 27, 2012).

Christiansen, Eric. The northern Crusades. 2nd, new ed. London, England: Penguin, 1997.

Clubb, Issa. "Alexander Nevsky - From the Current - The Criterion Collection." The Criterion Collection. http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/8-alexander-nevsky (accessed January 27, 2012).

Merritt, Russell. "Recharging "Alexander Nevsky": Tracking the Eisenstein-Prokofiev War Horse." Film Quarterly 48, no. 2 (1994): 32-47. www.jstor.org.librarycatalogs.nnu.edu/stable/1213094 (accessed January 27, 2012).

Neuberger, Joan . Ivan The Terrible, A Film Companion. London: I.B. Tauris and Co., 2003.

Orthrodox Church in AMerica. "OCA - Feasts and Saints." Saint Alexander Nevsky. http://ocafs.oca.org/FeastSaintsViewer.asp?SID=4&ID=1&FSID=103377 (accessed January 27, 2012).

"Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein." Carleton College: A Private Liberal Arts College in Northfield, Minnesota. http://www.carleton.edu/curricular/MEDA/classes/media110/Severson/filmog.htm (accessed January 27, 2012).

Taylor, Richard. "8: Alexander Nevsky." In Film propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. 2nd rev. ed. London: I.B. Tauris, 1998. 85-93.

Urban, William. The Teutonic Knights: a military history. London: Greenhill, 2003.

W. Gallez, Douglas. "The Prokofief-Eisenstien Collaboration: "Nevsky" and "Ivan" revisited." Cinema Journal 17, no. 2 (1978): 13-35.

"Russian bylines-Vasily Buslaev." Art populaire de la Russie. http://www.artrusse.ca/byliny/buslaev.htm (accessed January 27, 2012).

"Eurasian Studies 201 Handouts: Byliny." Pandora Web Space | Center for Instructional Innovation | Western Washington University. http://pandora.cii.wwu.edu/vajda/russ110/handout_p1_byliny.htm (accessed January 27, 2012).

1"About Criterion." The Criterion Collection. http://www.criterion.com/about_us (accessed January 26, 2012).
2"Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein." Carleton College: A Private Liberal Arts College in Northfield, Minnesota. http://www.carleton.edu/curricular/MEDA/classes/media110/Severson/filmog.htm (accessed January 27, 2012).
3Neuberger, Joan . "Introduction." In Ivan The Terrible, A Film Companion. London: I.B. Tauris and Co., 2003. 9.
4A search on the life of Alexander Nevsky gave
5"Biography of Pavel Korin (Russian) ." Karossvere Karefe. www.c-cafe.ru/days/bio/1/059.php (accessed January 27, 2012). (Self Translation)
6This stamp is in my personal collection.
7Clubb, Issa. "Alexander Nevsky - From the Current - The Criterion Collection." The Criterion Collection. http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/8-alexander-nevsky (accessed January 27, 2012).
8Christiansen, Eric. "Introduction." In The northern Crusades. 2nd, new ed. London, England: Penguin, 1997. 5.
9Merritt, Russell. "Recharging "Alexander Nevsky": Tracking the Eisenstein-Prokofiev War Horse." Film Quarterly 48, no. 2 (1994): 32-47. www.jstor.org.librarycatalogs.nnu.edu/stable/1213094 (accessed January 27, 2012).
10One may argue that Eisenstein merges the concept of Rodina, the russian concept of motherland, with the Soviet Identity, to create an illusion that Russia is communism, and communism is russia, thus creating a monolithic entity, something to worship, serve and be a part of. A nation state that is also a lifestyle.
11Tropes in slavic folklore. "Eurasian Studies 201 Handouts: Byliny." Pandora Web Space | Center for Instructional Innovation | Western Washington University. http://pandora.cii.wwu.edu/vajda/russ110/handout_p1_byliny.htm (accessed January 27, 2012).
12 Vasily Buslayev "Russian bylines-Vasily Buslaev." Art populaire de la Russie. http://www.artrusse.ca/byliny/buslaev.htm (accessed January 27, 2012).
13Another interesting sidenote is the helmets of the Knight's foot soldiers. They cover most of the faces, except the eyes. This leads to exceeding aelienation, something george lucas used whith the imperial troopers helmets.
14Taylor, Richard. "8: Alexander Nevsky." In Film propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. 2nd rev. ed. London: I.B. Tauris, 1998. 85-93.
15Christiansen, Eric. The northern Crusades. 2nd, new ed. London, England: Penguin, 1997.
16Urban, William. The Teutonic Knights: a military history. London: Greenhill, 2003.

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