Thursday, October 16, 2003

Art, Politics and History

Tonight I had the opportunity to enjoy a film that is both entertaining and fascinating in many ways. It was the great Russian classic Alexander Nevsky by Sergei Eisenstein, music by Prokofiev. Of course Prokofiev's music is classic, and some of my favorite stuff. He wrote at least three film scores that I know of (all for Eisenstein?) several operas, and the great ballet music still used today for Cinderella, and Romeo and Juliet. (Also numerous symphonies - my favorite being his Symphony in C, and his masterful violin concertos.) I often think that if I could make a movie, I would use music by Prokofiev. But I digress.

It is always interesting watching these old classics. They did pretty well without all the modern conventions, equipment, technology, etc. that we have today. The acting of Nikolai Cherkasov is superb. But there was one thing that really bugged me: the Soviet Propaganda Machine. It is difficult, no, impossible to ignore two things:

1) This film had the explicit intention of rallying the Russian people behind their state as they entered WW2 - the theme of standing up for their homeland against the German invaders is highly pronounced. Not to mention, they even have many of the soldiers accompanying the teutonic Knights wearing what appear to be your standard WW2 German helmets.

2) They had to change history, and delete all reference to Christianity on the good guys side. (Of course they made it obvious that the "bad guys side" was the Pope, a Cardinal, a Grand Inquisitor, and a bunch of Roman Catholic monks.

You have probably guess that the thing that disappointed me the most about the movie was number 2.

Let me briefly recap the historical events:
Alexander Nevsky conquers the Teutonic Knights as they attempt to invade Russia in the year 1242. A great battle takes place on the frozen lake Chudskoe. The Russians win. The Teutonic Knights are routed, and many of those who flee run across thin ice, the lake cracks open and they drown.

Now there is no question, historically, that the great glory of this battle and it's importance in history from 1242 until 1914 or so when the Soveits came to power and rewrote their own history, was the fact that the Orthodox had defeated Roman Catholic invaders who were coming to Russia intent on "taking back" the Church from the heretics (the Orthodox) and properly subjugating it to the Pope.

Those who were fighting alongside Alexander (he's "Saint Alexander" to us, folks...) were doing so for two reasons: (a) to save their homeland, and (b) to save the Church. The victory was not only seen as a great triumph of glory for "Rus" but it was viewed by one and all as a miracle from God. Alexander takes a place among the faithful Christians the way that King David (also a saint to us) did in the Old Testament. It is a shame that when Cherkasov (Alexander) cries out: "Slava Rus" (Glory to Rus!) at the end of the film, he cannot follow that up with the obvious: "Slava Bogu" (Glory to God!) which, undoubtedly, the real St. Alexander most certainly had done.

It is unfortunate, even heartbreaking, that in such an excellent film, the Soviet authorities kept Eisenstein from accurately portraying history. Oh, there are churches everywhere in the background in the film, but not a single mention of their faith. Not a single line in the script. Not a single Orthodox priest or monk. (Unlike Andrei Tarkovsky's great film about Andre Rublev many years later.)

Well, I just had to vent my frustration about that. This film could have been a much more of a masterpiece if it had accurately portrayed history. The acting was great, the music is sublime, the fimlation is spectacular, but the script has been all cut to pieces by those nasty Soviet censors.

Enough said...

I highly recommend seeing this movie anyway. And I highly recommend you read the true history of St. Alexander. Here's a good web site that will tell you about it: Life of St. Alexander Nevsky.