Friday Film (11) suppose it was bound to happen: having begun to ‘take another look’ at Sergei Eisenstein over the Christmas break, I still haven’t completely emerged from beneath the minor mountain of films and clips that have appeared on YouTube since the last time I searched. After re-entering his output at 1925 with Battleship Potemkin in various versions, I’ve now reached 1938 and Alexander Nevsky — and I think I ought to use this Friday’s film-music posting to share a few bits of it with you…

Of course, something I don’t really want to share with you is the horribly distorted soundtrack for which this film is infamous in cinematic history. If you want to know just how bad it sounds — and you do! — here is a clip that demonstrates what I heard when I first played that unsurprisingly secondhand DVD all those years ago… (The extract is less than four minutes altogether: see if you can bear it all — and then imagine how you’d feel after another hour…)

I’ve stopped the clip where I have for two reasons. First, because I simply can’t stand the sound any more; secondly, because there’s something I want to do which involves the tune that’s just about to occur.

Fact is, you see, that the composer who provided Eisenstein with the music for this film — the great Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891-1953) — used this tune at both ends of his score. We hear it when, for the first time, we see living people — in the form of 13th-century Russians peacefully fishing in Lake Pleshcheyevo; and we hear it in the final scene when the Prince and his victorious army make their triumphant return. (Thankfully, there are partially re-dubbed modern versions of the film in circulation that allow us to avoid the worst excesses of the film’s faulty sound engineering, so from here on I am mostly working with one of those.)

Here is the tune’s first appearance…

And here is one of its appearances in that final scene…

I’ve brought those two moments together partly because I appreciate the visual parallelism that Eisenstein has engineered between the two scenes (compare: slow, pre-war procession through waters filled with fish, vs. slow, post-war procession through a street thronged with people, both processions moving gently to ‘camera left’, and with the returning soldiers having vanquished a great evil of the kind described in the words of the opening song…) — but mostly because I want to make a point about Prokofiev’s contribution. For, while this is literally the only Eisenstein film I’ve ever seen that I find at all lovable (uniquely, it has some actual people in it, rather than mere ‘types’ … well, on one side of the central conflict, at any rate), it seems to me that, without this inspired score, there would be considerably less to love: the film would have a good deal less life in it, and would seem to us to be vastly more creaky and dated than it does.

Let me illustrate my contention with two more clips in which Prokofiev’s music plays a dominating — perhaps even domineering — role.

First, here is the opening of the long scene in which the mediaeval Russians are attacked by the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire. Eisenstein, I acknowledge, does hardly anything wrong in this sequence, and practically every element in it works well or better. You are, in fact, in the palm of a controlling hand all the way through — but that hand is Prokofiev’s

And now here is a stretch from the other end of the battle sequence — featuring the defeat of the Grand Master in single combat and the rout and retreat of the Teutonic Knights. To repeat my point in the disguise of a rhetorical question: who, ultimately, is in control here? Not control of ‘what is seen’, but of what is felt…?

And now a few observations, if you’ll allow me…

To begin with, neither the choreography of the ‘Nevsky vs. Grand Master’ combat, nor the specific gestures of its musical accompaniment, are worked out on the level of co-ordinated moment-to-moment detail that we have become accustomed to seeing in our exploration of Errol Flynn movies with Korngold scores. Plainly, that simply wasn’t the way they worked on things over in Eisenstein’s studio. (Someone really ought to fix the print damage that causes the awful jumps in that sequence: I’m sure it’s a lot better than it looks now.) Then there is Vasilisa’s slaying of the traitor Ananias, and the emotionally resonant killing of Ignat — the master armourer whose own chain mail doesn’t cover him adequately. In neither case is the filmed action treated as justifying any kind of break or diversion in the musical continuity. Whereas in a Korngold score from this decade, all four characters would have had their own distinctive Leitmotive, and the music would have recalled and developed them during these interactions.

On the other hand, Prokofiev’s contribution to the sequence on ‘the field of the dead’ is of a kind that simply would not have been conceivable in the Hollywood of the time: the American dream-factories having pursued a very specific variety of ostensible ‘realism’, the sudden occurrence of a commenting, non-diegetic, quasi-operatic singing voice overlapping with diegetic dialogue would have been a rupture of a kind that tore the cinematic artefact apart…

Finally, three things unconnected with music.

First, nothing in the entire history of film has ever constituted a sight as mesmerisingly beautiful as those Russian girls with hats and double-braided hair. Is it  possible that Eisenstein was not quite as gay as he claimed to be…?

Secondly, the film’s final ten minutes contain something that show Eisenstein to be a dramaturgical imbecile — or, to put it another way, a stinking artistic liar who deserved to be pelted with rotten vegetables. (Yes, I said last week that he was getting better; but he’s not improved that much.) Anyone who can spot what I’m talking about gets ten points — and the knowledge that they are smarter than just about everybody who writes oh-so-appreciatively about Eisenstein in the world of ‘film studies’.

Thirdly, here is a clip from the very end of the film. As you’ll see from the sub-titles, Nevsky is really addressing the outside world

Personally, I’d consider that those words constitute advice worth taking, however heavily fictionalised the mouth from which they emerge. Over and over again, history has showed that messing with Russia is a course of action that only leads to the greatest unhappiness. Know what I’m saying…?


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3 thoughts on “Friday Film (11)

  1. How odd to see the music in the context of the film. Going by the clips here, Prokofiev’s fantastic score seems to me to have aged somewhat better than the film as a whole. Obviously it’s unreasonable to judge old films by modern standards, but really, it looks unwatchable. Reminded me a lot of Star Wars.


    • — Just a little note to say that when David J says ‘How odd to see the music in the context of the film’, he’s referring (I assume!) to the terrific cantata that Prokofiev went on to construct, based on his film score…


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