Saturday, April 3, 2010

Eisenstein and Techno-Music

I didn't get into silent films until I discovered that they can be watched on fast-forward while listening to German techno music. Surprisingly, Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin doesn't require any mood music: the actions hold your attention perfectly well without any additives. Whether you're watching the evil ship's doctor ordering men to eat maggot-infested meat, witnessing the evil ship's clergyman giving religious sanction to arbitrary capital punishment, or seeing Cossacks gun down women and children on Odessa's famous steps, the propagandizing narrative keeps you interested in every scene.

Of course, the film is so famous and influential its every scene reminds you of scenes from other movies. All told, how many baby carriages descending down flights of stairs in the midst of gun battles have there been? Battleship Potemkin is a great film, but it has also become something of a cliche.

Alexander Nevsky was infinitely more interesting to me, and not just because it relies on more than a music score to move the action along. Here we drop all pretense to any historical accuracy. The life of late medieval Nevsky seems intricately intertwined with the modern life of Soviet Russia: Alexander Nevsky is merely a handsomer version of Joseph Stalin.

Nevsky's task is Stalin's task: to use every once of his natural heroism, wisdom, and military acumen to inspire ordinary Russians to oppose bestial German intruders. In fact, Eisenstein's Nevsky is confronted with a two-front war: as Soviet Russia braced for a possible invasion from both Germany and Japan, so did Nevsky declare that he would defeat Germany (always the bigger threat) before turning on the Mongols.

Eisenstein's message is so transparently Stalin's message that (without having researched this question in advance of posting this) it seems likely that Stalin was personally involved in crafting its message. First, Nevsky believes in an offensive war against the anonymous, helmeted Germans, who literally throw naked children into fires as they advance toward Novgorod. These Germans are helped by two sinister forces: Catholic priests and merchants. Second, Nevsky understands that Russia is being undermined from within. Like Stalin, Nevsky (the character as well as the film as a whole) is almost as concerned with Russian traitors as he is with the German enemy. The Russian people as a whole--but especially the lower social orders--must be vigilant about those who would sell out the country for a few coins. Third, Nevsky underscores the point that the nation needs security in the form of military leadership more than it needs freedom. Novgorod, that cradle of liberty in early Russia, enthusiastically lays down all claims to independence in the interest of military solidarity with the rest of Russia.

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