A hero for Mother Russia, a sudden revelation about old advice.
The Film: Sergie Eisenstein’s Stalin-era historical drama
The Potable: Three Smirnoff Moscow mules
One of my grad school literature professors was something of a film buff. “A movie a night,” he would say. It wasn’t a medium he respected, exactly, just one he found digestible, a film like Wild Strawberries being a simple thing to unwind to after a long day of reading. “You’ve never seen Alexander Nevsky?” he asked me once. “The battle on the frozen lake?” I had not, and to avoid appearing a rube, I changed the subject to James Joyce, even though I was not (still am not) particularly well-versed in that regard, either. On the alphabetized bookshelf behind him, the J’s just happened to be at eye-level. “Is it anything like Portrait?” I asked. “Portrait of an Artist?” My professor only stared at me.
A brief geography lesson, best enjoyed while listening to Prokofiev: Russia, in its vastness, has remained vulnerable on a number of fronts throughout its existence, but no topographical feature has affected the region more than the sprawling East European Plain. The broad, snowy flatlands leave Western Russia exposed, but also tend to exhaust would-be invaders before they can reach Moscow. The stretch proved insurmountable to Napoleon in 1812, the Nazis in 1941, and likely would have stopped the Portuguese if they’d ever gotten greedy enough to try.
Every great military flashpoint needs a hero, and here we enter the Prince of Novgorod, the 13th-century warrior saint gloriously portrayed in Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky. While most of the male proletariat in medieval Russia wore the horrifying bowl-cuts of a young Liz Lemon, only one man had the slightly-longer, golden locks necessary to lead in battle.
We first meet our Kievan he-man standing hands on his hips, peeing in a river. Reeds sway softly in the breeze. Picturesque and powerful, Nevsky ascends the hilltop to negotiate with a group of Mongols without ever washing his hands. This is true statecraft, I think, and the lake is beautiful. Is this where the battle so revered by my professor takes place?
I don’t believe so. Birds are chirping, grass is growing. This is no place for an ice skirmish.
Another body of water, and Nevsky stands lakeside to hollow out an oak canoe. Yawn. Even for 1938 this is cliche. Just once I’d like to see a macho carpenter build something that would look nice in a kitchen. A stenstorp, perhaps. A förhöja, but what can I expect given Moscow’s relationship with the Swedes. Is this the lake, the battle imminent?
Not at all. First the film must establish the enemy. Nevsky’s foe: the Holy Roman Empire by way of Germany. It becomes very clear that the Soviets were no fans of Catholics, and as someone who recently went through Pre-Cana, one sympathizes. They’re judgemental, imposing, and wear anonymizing helmets that severely restrict peripheral vision. If I had a nickel for every Teutonic Knight who bumped into me while trying to grab a brownie from the Our Lady of Bethesda snack table, I could pay off this wedding. Still, Eisenstein shows the Holy Roman Germans dropping naked babies into a fire, which, I can now attest, is certainly not a Vatican policy.
Over an hour later, some promising signs. Winter has arrived, and Nevsky’s soldiers amass, at last, in full armor across the snow. Is this even a lake? It’s difficult to say since a frozen body of water covered in snow actually looks a lot like normal land covered in snow. No trees, obviously, but a wintry tobacco field is also vegetatively bald. Cow pastures, golf courses, parking lots. But soon the Germans appear on the horizon, an intimidating army, and it’s clear that, lake or no, a fruckus will soon occur.
Nevsky and his men are outmatched in every sense of the word, but with a home team advantage, the Russians take an early lead by swarming a German regiment and encircling them with spears. A short-lived victory, as the greater German army then chases Nevsky’s men deeper into the plains. The Russians seem fated to lose, until a sudden crack appears in the very surface of the earth. A lake, indeed! And the Germans, with their advanced metal armor and luscious, flowing hair are far heavier than the Russians’ bowl cuts and simple chainmail. The Germans retreat, and those who don’t sink to the icy depths.
All of this patriotism is reflected in the film’s lighting, which is very vivid.
I suddenly realized why my professor asked me about this film all those years ago. At the time, I was working on a very cutting-edge short story that took place entirely inside a bathroom, the protagonist trapped, not by physical barrier, but through his own irresponsibility in failing to procure toilet paper. It was a difficult tightrope to walk, as the story would include the surrealness of Donald Barthelme, the stripped-bare elegance of Hemingway, and the biting, droll wisdom of Barry Hannah. I went to my professor for advice. “How exactly should I introduce the spider?” I asked him.
Alexander Nevsky, the great battle atop a frozen lake. When you’re out of your depth, I suppose he meant, sometimes it’s best to just get off the ice.
Verdict: very passive-aggressive