Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Perils of Totalitarian Art

I've always been attracted to movies with interesting back stories. While Brazil is now one of my favorite flicks, I was initially attracted to it because of the titanic struggle that Terry Gilliam had to go through to get it released as he wanted it in the United States.

Along those same lines, I'd always wanted to see Alexander Nevsky, Sergei Eisenstein's tale of a 13th-century Russian hero's triumph over invading German crusaders. Finally, thanks to a well timed Borders coupon, I've been able to get my hands on the Criterion Collection version (which comes boxed with Eisenstein's two part Ivan the Terrible). If nothing else, it is a potent example of how a repressive dictatorship shapes art, in both overt and subtle ways.

Nevsky was the product of two brilliant artists in desperate need of a "hit," so to speak.

Eisenstein made his name as a pioneer of Russian silent film, most notably for The Battleship Potemkin. But by the time Nevsky was made in 1937, however, he was outside of the Soviet artistic power structure. A few years in Hollywood hadn't been fruitful. On return to the Soviet Union, Eisenstein had production on his film Bezhin Meadow (what's left of it is a bonus feature on the Criterion DVD) shut down by the government for being politically incorrect.

Eisenstein's collaborator was in similar straights. Composer Sergei Prokofiev had also gone abroad, though with more success. When he returned to the Soviet Union in 1935, he found himself working under the watchful eyes (and ears) of the "Composers' Union," which sought to limit outside influence in Soviet music. One of his works, Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, was banned and went unheard until 1966.

With that background, you can see why Eisenstein was desperate. As this lengthy and funny review explains:

So when it came time to write his next screenplay, Eisenstein collaborated with Pyotr Pavlenko, a member of the secret police who allegedly sat in on NKVD interrogations. American filmmakers bitch and moan about dealing with Philistine studio executives, but at least those guys only pretend to be bloodthirsty madmen. To say Eisenstein was operating from a position of limited power is an understatement. It's not a surprise, then, that Alexander Nevsky is unsubtle and clumsy in its ideology. The real wonder is it wasn't titled Please Don't Kill Me, Comrade Stalin.
Eisenstein chose Nevsky as a subject partly because so little was known about him and thus there was less chance of ideological straying. Eisenstein wound up making a film that's not just shot in black and white but is black and white in its storytelling: the honest (and oddly irreligious, for the 13th century) Russians, led by their humble superman of a leader (that would be Nevsky), defeat the invading very Catholic and nearly mustache twiddling German horde in a spectacular battle on a frozen lake. The script almost writes itself.

That background alone would be sufficient to make Alexander Nevsky a paradigmatic example of totalitarian art. But the regime impacted the film in a more subtle, and perhaps unintended, way.

Einstein and Prokofiev were truly collaborators on the project. According to another of the bonus features on the Criterion DVD, parts of the score were actually written first. Eisenstein would then take the music then shoot and cut the visuals to match. It was a technique inspired by, of all things, Disney's Silly Symphonies and, a project in the works while Eisenstein was in Hollywood, Fantasia. The result should have been a seamless marriage of visuals and music, something along the lines of what Stanley Kubrick would achieve decades later in 2001.

Instead, the regime trod all over the soundtrack in two critical ways. First, authorities required that Prokofiev record the score in a Soviet studio using Soviet equipment. Problem was, Soviet studio technology was about 15 years behind Hollywood's, which meant that the score wasn't very well recorded to begin with. Second, Stalin became so infatuated with the film that he rushed it into theaters before the soundtrack was polished. The speculation on the Criterion bonus feature is that the score we have now was meant as a "scratch" or demo track, which Prokofiev never had the chance to redo. Not surprisingly, the film is sometimes shown today with a live orchestra playing the score.

Audio quality problems aside, catching Stalin's favor must have been good for business, right? Oh it was, for a bit. The film opened in November 1938 to popular acclaim, before the tide of history swamped over it. On August 24, 1939, the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany. As I mentioned above, the movie is about a Russian army turning back invading Germans. That wasn't a politically astute story to tell once the nonaggression pact was signed, so the film was withdrawn from circulation.

If you know your history, you can probably figure out what happened next in the life of Alexander Nevsky. On June 22, 1941, the Nazis broke the nonaggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union. Hey, what a great time to push a film about brave Russians turning back German aggressors back into theaters! Ever since, the film has been part of the lore of Soviet cinema and remains the most popular (if not most acclaimed) work of Eisenstein's career. Prokofiev took the music for the film and repurposed it into the Alexander Nevsky Cantata, which remains a popular work today.

All that being said, how does Alexander Nevsky work as a flim? Honestly, it was a bit of a disappointment. Granted, it's more than 70 years old, but a lot of it comes across as stiff, sometimes bordering on corny (I agree with a lot of what's said in the review I quoted above). The good guys are really good and the bad guys are really really bad (they make the Borg or the Daleks look charming by comparison). That being said, it has some stunning visual sequences and the music is wonderful.

If you can lay your hands on a decent version, I highly recommend it. Not so much as brilliant cinema, but as a historical example of the kind of art that gets produced when the state tries to micromanage its artists. Sometimes, the better story is behind the camera, rather than what happens in front of it.

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