Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, which depicts the defeat of the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire at the hands of the titular St. Alexander, is widely regarded as a classic of war cinema. The climactic half-hour depiction of the final confrontation between Nevsky and the Teutons on the frozen surface of Lake Peipus, accompanied by Sergei Prokofiev’s rousing score, has become a formative influence on dozens of subsequent cinematic battle scenes. The film was produced in 1938, and the thinly veiled parallel it suggests between the 13th-century German crusaders and contemporary Nazi aggression against the Soviet Union lends the work a gravity that has undoubtedly contributed to its reputation. Yet this seriousness is also dependent on an anachronism that becomes obvious when one considers Eisenstein’s engagement with the religious legacies of his subject matter.
The historic Prince Alexander Nevsky is revered as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church and has been since his death in 1263, after which hagiographies quickly began to appear. This tradition of piety depicts Nevsky as a devout man who was highly deferential to the ecclesial hierarchy, and the unprecedented victory at the Battle of the Ice is presented as a result of divine providence, an intervention on behalf of the holy man and the Orthodox Church. Little evidence of this view of Nevsky remains in Eisenstein’s production, in which the only references to Orthodoxy are the onion domes of the cathedral in the background of the scenes set in Novgorod. Although relations between the Church and the state thawed in the 1930s, the official atheism of the Soviet state didn’t lend itself to hagiographical cinema.
Yet Eisenstein cannot entirely resist the theological. The portrayal of the Teutons focuses on their Catholicism; they are accompanied everywhere by monks and even a high inquisitor, dressed in ominous robes and accompanied by eerie organ music. (Organs are not traditional in Orthodox worship and are still the subject of the bitterest polemics in some circles.) In some ways, this is honest history. The invasion was a holy crusade, sanctioned by the Vatican, and the Teutonic Order, having already swept through the pagan Baltic, had been blessed to conquer Russia in the name of the one true Church of Rome. But all attempts at history are also ways of narrating contemporary events. Eisenstein himself, in his essay “My Subject is Patriotism,” wrote, “When you read the chronicles of the thirteenth century alternately with current newspapers, you lose your sense of the difference in time.” This anachronism produces a distinctly theological genealogy for Nazi ideology via a long history of antagonism between Orthodoxy and the West. At one point in the film, the Holy Roman Emperor says, “There is but one God in heaven, and one representative on earth…all who refuse to bow to Rome must be destroyed.”
While identifying the papacy as an illegitimate claim to divine authority has a long pedigree in Orthodoxy, in the context of anti-Nazi propaganda, this takes on new resonances. Is it possible that Eisenstein was aware of the argument of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt that, as he wrote in his 1922 book Political Theology, “[all] significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts”? Regardless, the series of connections drawn between monotheism, the Western doctrine of the Papacy, and the fascist nation-state cannot be entirely accidental. Nevsky represents an attempt to rally traditional suspicion of Catholicism—that may still have been common in a still “culturally Orthodox” Russia—behind Marxist atheism, against the new enemy. One might perhaps go even further and ask: Does Marxism here appear as the radicalization of an Orthodox polemic?
Yet Eisenstein himself was not particularly interested in developing such religious trajectories. In “Alexander Nevsky and the Rout of the Germans,” he writes, “The only miracle in the battle on Lake Peipus was the genius of the Russian people.” His focus is, in his own words, patriotism. This makes some sense against the backdrop of the 1930s, with the urgency of mobilizing the entire Russian nation against an increasingly aggressive Germany. Hitler had promised the German ruling classes that he would defeat the communist menace once and for all, and also cleanse the Slavs to provide lebensraum (“living room”) for Aryan German populations. At the same time, however, the nature of the national appeal across the historical distance between the 1930s and the 1240s can overshadow the centrality of the specifically modern impulse driving fascist ideology as, in Aimé Césaire’s formulation, Western imperialism returning to Western soil. When the film was re-released in the 1990s to try to appeal to a burgeoning popular medievalist revival, the promotional posters featured two figures fighting, but both wore the horned helmets that, in the film itself, are only worn by the Teutons. It is possible this marketing was aimed at white supremacist audiences, who notoriously hover around anything medieval in popular culture. Eisenstein’s neglect of race as a serious political factor, amplified by historical distance, creates the grim irony that a piece of anti-Nazi propaganda might be received positively by contemporary fascists.
Perhaps, then, we should be grateful for the conspicuous absence of Christianity from Nevsky; after all, if anything could create a reactionary appeal to a pure white nationhood under the guise of a superficial “antifascism,” it would be the rhetoric of the Christian nation—the Christian civilization—embodied in the Christian saint, Alexander Nevsky. Yet this irreligious hagiography is not only a moment in the odd negotiations between Church and Soviet state —a relationship that warmed up in the build up to the war precisely because of the potential national appeal of Orthodoxy—but also in the long history of the ambivalent relationship between political power and Russian/Orthodox devotional memory. Nevsky is glorified as a saint almost entirely on account of his victories against the Swedes and the Teutons. After his death, Lenin’s body would be preserved, perhaps analogously to the uncorrupted bodies of Orthodox saints—yet not by a miracle, but by modern science; not on account of his holiness, but as an individual embodiment of the new world yet to come.
While the Commission for the Immortalization of the Memory of V. I. Ulyanov were keen to stress that this was not a return of the old superstitions, certain figures central to the project, Anatoly Lunacharsky especially, were key figures in the movement known as the “God-builders,” which attempted to frame socialism as in some sense driven not only by a “dry economism,” but also by “religious” impulses. The God-builders were not religious in a conventional sense; rather, their interest in religion emerged from their emphasis on the strains of emotional enthusiasm in revolutionary traditions, the affective excess of Marxist materialism. Whilst Nevsky(taking a more “orthodox” approach) strips the prince of religiosity to welcome him into the Soviet project, Lunacharsky and others sought to preserve the materialist Lenin for veneration as a sign of the eschatological future of this project, communism’s promise of a new humanity.
In spite of all of this serious reflection spurred by the film, when I first watched Nevsky, I was most struck by its campiness. According to Susan Sontag’s classic (if contested) “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Camp cannot be defined but only characterized fragmentarily; Camp converts the serious into the frivolous; it is both a mode of interpretation and a quality in phenomenon; it is style against content, aesthetics against politics. This is why, in Sontag’s view, “Eisenstein’s films are seldom Camp,” because Camp is a failure of content to live up to exaggerated form, whereas the drama of Eisenstein’s films is entirely proportionate to their subject matter. As Sontag writes, “despite all exaggeration, [Eisenstein’s films] do succeed (dramatically) without surplus.”
“Of course,” Sontag writes, “the canon of Camp can change. Time has a great deal to do with it.” Perhaps it is because I do not take a particularly romantic view of war (or perhaps because the struggle against fascism is not as easily exteriorized in the contemporary West, where fascism is at the very least adjacent to our current political administrations, as it was for Eisenstein, for whom Nazism was a foreign aggressor) that the seriousness of Nevsky now seems flamboyant, almost comic. There’s even something about the absolute sincerity of Eisenstein’s figures, their affected nobility, that reminds one of Judy Garland, or one of those other old-time movie stars; what for them is absolutely in earnest has become for us an archaism, stylized, performative. I’ve taken to referring to the film casually as “Antifa on Ice.” Camp here in some sense encodes a relation to history, perhaps even including the anachronistic identification at the heart of Nevsky as a piece of Soviet anti-Nazi propaganda.
And, pace Sontag’s insistence on Camp’s depoliticism, it is perhaps this relation to history that constitutes the usefulness of Nevsky and its irreligious hagiography. After 1989, and in a culture often suspicious of religious enthusiasm, it would be easy to dismiss Nevsky and the strains of revolutionary devotional memory that accompany it as merely of academic interest. Yet if the essential contribution of Camp is, as Sontag writes, a “new relationship to seriousness,” perhaps some of these anachronisms are worth inhabiting.
Jonathan Murden writes a monthly column of cultural theology. Murden is an Orthodox Christian and undergrad currently based in the north of England.