Sergei Eisenstein | Alexander Nevsky | Ivan the Terrible

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Sergei Eisenstein

Alexander Nevsky

The battle on the ice recalls the shots of soldiers moving over ice that open Mauritz Stiller's Sir Arne's Treasure (1919). Stiller is a director who is reported to have influenced Eisenstein, and one can see several parallels in Eisenstein's work to Stiller. Eisenstein's battle is far more elaborate and stylistically complex than the shots in Stiller's film - but the Stiller does look like an ancestor.

Visual Style in Alexander Nevsky

One type of shot in the battle sequence: a shot framing one person in the foreground, while behind numerous spears or swords make very complex, moving geometric patterns while battling each other.


The Russian's clothes are dark, while the Germans', except for a few black clad monks, have white garments. The Russian soldiers have circular shields, while the Germans' clothes emphasize crosses. The Russian helmets are also round, while the Germans' are more squared off. This gives a Russian circularity / German rectilinearity contrast to the film. The visual contrast also extends to modeling, and the geometric forms used by the clothes: the Russians tend to wear a lot of chain mail, both on their heads and their torsos. This chain mail tends to flow along the soldiers' bodies, and mold themselves to their forms. This gives a constant curvature to the chain mail. It gives the chain mail a "biomorphic" form, one suggestive of the constant curvature of body parts. Such biomorphic forms play a prominent role in the abstract painting of the Dada-Surrealist-Abstract Expressionist tradition, being found in such artists as Duchamp, Arp, Miro, Masson, Matta, Gorky and De Kooning. This biomorphic curvature also relates to the circularity of their shields. Even the helmets of the Russians are not pure cones; instead, they form into elaborate curves that suggest the shapes of body parts. Many of the Russians also have elaborately curved beards. (Biomorphic forms apear unexpectedly in the curving architecture in Mizoguchi's Street of Shame (1956).)

By contrast, the Germans have clothes that suggest more purely geometric shapes. Their helmets look like truncated cones, and their white tunics seem to fall into austere forms that hide the shape of the bodies underneath. Their clothes fall into the tradition of Constructivism. The truncated cones of the German soldiers' helmets recall the similar shapes out of which the Suprematist artist Kazimir Malevich made up many of his cubo-futurist paintings. The whole picture's use of geometric forms in motion has a Suprematist feel.

Jean Mitry has pointed out, that while the German troops are always organized into strict geometric patterns, that the Russians are formed into irregular waves. This parallels their costume design.

There are some historical oddities in Eisenstein making the Russian heroes of his film biomorphic, and the German villains Constructivist. Biomorphism found its biggest adherents in a French-Swiss-American zone, whereas Constructivism was popular in the Northern region that stretched from the Low Countries (Holland, Belgium) through Germany, and on to Russia. So Constructivism was authentically Russian, whereas biomorphic abstraction was not.

All of the crosses on the Germans' uniforms link them strongly with Christianity in particular, and religion in general. It seems clear from the film that Eisenstein hated both. Suprematism was not linked historically to Christianity, but it had a strong link to religion, especially Theosophy. Suprematist artists thought their work was an attempt to convey spiritual states to the viewer. The crosses on the helmets and cloaks of the Germans are not only Christian symbols. They also recall the many narrow, overlapping, elongated rectangles in the Suprematist paintings of Malevich. The way the crosses on the tunics are tilted at angles, recalls the many tilted rectangles in Malevich's Suprematist work: it is perhaps Malevich's archetypal image of those years. The way the crosses are displayed against the white background of the tunics also recalls Malevich's paintings, which have similar white backgrounds. Malevich certainly saw Suprematism as a religious movement, and form of expression.

By contrast, Biomorphism was linked to ideas about the liberation of the Unconscious, and freedom of sexuality. There are certainly hints in Nevsky of such things, but never very explicitly: the picture plainly bows low to the Puritanism of Stalin.

Malevich was an outspoken critic of Eisentein's work; he wanted it to be more radical aesthetically. There is perhaps a note of personal animosity here, in Eisenstein making the Forces of Evil to use a Suprematist style recalling Malevich's work.

A note: Tom Cruise's armor in Ridley Scott's Legend (1985) is made up of overlapping scales, similar to that of Alexander Nevsky. The scales resemble those of a fish, and Scott's film completes this illusion by making the scales a golden color (Eisenstein's original was in black and white).

Alexander Nevsky and Potemkin

The shot of the Russians landing on the beach, where a line of peasants forms a twisting path up a hill, recalls similar single file processions of the people in Potemkin. In both cases, Eisenstein shoots from a similar angle, elevated enough to capture all pieces of the spectacle.

In the pacifist Potemkin, the people were all unarmed, and the bad guys all carried pointed bayonets. In the war mongering Nevsky, the good guys are all fighters, and they still all carry spears, or sometimes torches, allowing for the same kind of visual composition, in which the elevated, pointed straight lines dominate the composition. Eisenstein has completely reworked his moral point of view here, but kept the same sort of visual imagery. This sort of 180 degree turn is, I suppose, one of the hazards of making propaganda.

The shots at the end of Nevsky showing the fallen heroes being carried in, recalls the similar lying in state of the fallen sailor in Potemkin. In both films, the people turn out to pay tribute to the body.

Alexander Nevsky: Influence on Orson Welles

Alexander Nevsky (1938) recalls the later work of Orson Welles. Welles made his Shakespeare films be full of old time, medieval soldiers. Their costumes recall those in Nevsky. So do the elaborate geometrical patterns they made, especially with their lances. So do the way that several of Eisenstein's compositions are formed against white backgrounds; Welles will make similar compositions against the white castle wall in Othello. The style of Welles' Brazilian documentary, It's All True (1942), also recalls Nevsky. Welles often showed several boats, their sails raised above the water. The boats are firmly anchored to the surface of the water, which forms a connecting link or plane between them, where as their sails are each raised and isolated individually against the sky. This is similar to Eisenstein's treatment of soldiers in several Nevsky shots. In both Eisenstein and Welles, the raised visual forms are repeated over and over, with numerous similar sails (Welles) or spears (Eisenstein) in one composition.

Gay Imagery in Eisenstein

There is a lot of gay imagery in Eisenstein's films: Critical discussions of Eisenstein and gayness are perhaps archetypal of the methodological difficulties discussing gayness in the cinema. On the one hand, we have some critics saying they don't see anything gay at all about Eisenstein's films, and completely ignoring this aspect of Eisenstein's work. On the other, we have people saying the gay imagery is the only important thing about a film. In Eisenstein's case, neither is true. We need to move to a more realistic ground, which is fully aware of Eisenstein's gay side, but which also recognizes his astonishing ability to create compositional form. An idea he got from Fritz Lang...

Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible shows the influence of Mauritz Stiller and Fritz Lang. The barbaric court, with its primitive splendor, especially recalls Lang's Siegfried (1924). The sumptuous but primitive costumes, full of fur, and the headdresses of the women, evoke both Stiller's Sir Arne's Treasure (1919) and Siegfried. So do the parabolic arches that are everywhere at the court, in both Lang and Eisenstein - and both recall the rounded arches in the tavern scenes in the Stiller.

The romantic triangles between a king, the king's wife and another man who loves her are also in the tradition of Siegfried. Both films have a marriage ceremony; in both, a ritual offering of a drink from a broad drinking vessel is part of the solemn festivities.

The fire that engulfs Moscow recalls the fire at the vicarage in Sir Arne's Treasure, and the fire that destroys the village in Lang's Destiny (1921) - Lang's film too was probably influenced by Stiller's The rioting commoners near the start of Ivan the Terrible, recall the mobs in Lang's Metropolis. The broad stairways of Metropolis are also present in Ivan the Terrible.

The procession at the end of Part I of Ivan the Terrible, that stretches over the countryside in a curved line, recalls the similar vast funeral procession at the end of Sir Arne's Treasure. One suspects that Stiller's funeral also helped inspire scenes in Potemkin.

Above all, the sheerly geometric nature of the compositions in Ivan the Terrible seems Lang like.