2 Adapted from his article “Recharging Alexander Nevsky: Tracking the Eisenstein-Prokofiev War Horse.” Film Quarterly, vol.42 no.2 (Winter 1994-5): 34-47.
3 See also his book Ivan the Terrible (London: British Film Institute, 2002) which enlarges on the ideas in this commentary.
Taking Nevsky first, there’s an optional commentary through the whole film by David Bordwell, author of The Cinema of Eisenstein (Harvard University Press). As well as explaining the political background to the making of the film, Bordwell points up “Eisensteinian” techniques and motifs that run through this and his other films. He is also aware of the soundtrack and makes some valuable comments on Prokofiev’s music though the news that he “wrote several song symphonies in the period 1937-39” will surprise more than enlighten as will the revelation that the Ivan the Terrible cantata was the work of Sergei Sergeevich himself. But the music is dealt with in more detail in Russell Merritt’s 23-minute audio-visual essay.(2) After some newsreel footage of Eisenstein and Prokofiev working on the film at the piano, Merritt outlines how the director and composer collaborated, compares sequences for which Prokofiev wrote the music before and after shooting, discusses the influence of cartoons (especially Disney and Stokowski), and explains how the soundtrack was recorded.
This disc also features one of Eisenstein’s ‘lost’ films, Bezhin Meadow, on which he worked from 1935 to 1937. Using Turgenev’s story and grafting onto it the biography of collectivism’s sacrificed saint Pavel Morozov, Eisenstein had to make the film twice and it still did not satisfy the authorities. Whether it was destroyed deliberately in the late 1930s or accidentally in the war, it no longer exists (though hope springs eternal!) but Eisenstein habitually kept a couple of frames from each scene he shot and in 1967 these were used by Naum Kleiman and Sergei Yutkevich to produce a palimpsest of the film. Though visually stunning, it remains a controversial addition to the canon, not least for its subject matter. The original score was to be written by Gavriil Popov but for this restoration, excerpts of Prokofiev’s music have been used with varied success. There are also many of Jay Leyda’s photographs of the film-makers at work, a collection of contemporary articles about it by Eisenstein and others (including the director’s self-lacerating “The Mistakes of Bezhin Meadow”) and a short, rather hagiographic, essay by Elena Pinto Simon.
Turning to Ivan the Terrible, the restoration is far more impressive and particular care has been taken to bring the colour sections closer to Eisenstein’s lurid vision. It’s accompanied by two multimedia essays totalling over an hour. Joan Neuberger (currently writing a book on the film) covers its relationship to history, dictatorship, the revolution, Stalinism and the autobiographical elements that Eisenstein slowly introduced. Yuri Tsivian discusses the director’s visual vocabulary, relating it to, amongst other things, the theories of Freud and Meyerhold.(3) He also explains the film’s formalisms, including a study of the wall paintings, observations on which would have been pointless on some video releases since they were almost too dark even to see the walls! There is also a collection of over a hundred drawings and production stills, and Naum Kleiman’s 33-minute documentary The Unknown Ivan the Terrible. This includes a powerful version of the prologue, rejected by the studio as “too gloomy”; extra footage of the Battle of Kazan (unacceptable as too satirical); and a surviving section of the uncompleted Part Three in which Ivan and his court have become paranoiacally deranged.
Finally, to the soundtracks. These must be dealt with carefully. André Previn described Nevsky as “the world’s greatest film score trapped in the world’s worst soundtrack” and it’s true that the recorded quality can be abysmal. Things had improved slightly when Ivan was made but it was still behind what was happening in the West at the time. Stalin’s national pride forbade the studios to use western recording equipment and their own technology made little progress through the 1930s, a fact that’s incidentally proved by these discs. The start of The Unknown Ivan the Terrible is accompanied by a fragment of Shostakovich’s music from Alone which, from the dull, compressed sound, seems to have been taken from the original 1930 soundtrack and is little worse than parts of Nevsky. But Nevsky is not just technically deficient, the orchestra was very small and there is evidence that when the film was released a poorly played and recorded rehearsal track was actually used rather than the one Prokofiev and Eisenstein intended.
On the other hand Prokofiev often strove to produce a strange, unnatural sound. He deliberately recorded the trumpets too closely, introducing distortion to evoke old instruments and what the Russians would have heard as the Germans’ harsh music. He also used filters and reseated the orchestra for various sections in order to give different sound perspectives.
When Nevsky was originally released the score’s performers remained anonymous, while Ivan was conducted by Abram Stasevich, who also compiled the cantata. For these DVDs the music tracks are credited to the State Cinema Orchestra under Emin Khachaturian. He is a regular soundtrack conductor who has been in charge of film scores by composers such as Schnittke, Karetnikov and Boris Chaikovsky. It seems that the voice, music and sound effects tracks have been separated and a new music track recorded adhering to the original tempi and respecting Prokofiev’s technical innovative ideas. The problem is that whatever is done to improve the sound of the music, the voices, in particular Nikolai Cherkassov’s overwhelming Ivan, must be left alone. There should be little discrepancy between the voices and the music: a 1980s digital music track and a poor 1938 analogue voice track would sound horrible together. Here there has been an effort to match the two, generally giving the effect of a better quality old track, though the effects (clashing swords etc) sometimes sound suspiciously clean and may also have been re-recorded.
Though nothing to do with Prokofiev, a pedant would claim that the set isn’t quite Eisenstein’s complete ‘sound years’: it excludes Romance Sentimentale, a weird kind of proto-pop-video from 1930, though Eisenstein directed only a small part of it, and the 1929 Swiss information film about abortion Frauennot – Frauengluck with which his connection as ‘supervising director’ was even more tenuous.
These are undoubtedly the best-known films for which Prokofiev wrote scores as their history of multiple video releases testifies. But these DVDs move the experience of seeing them onto a new plane. Now, about the other films Prokofiev wrote scores for... Back