What happened when the Soviet Union’s greatest composer and its greatest filmmaker came together to produce two screen masterpieces? Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible remain among the greatest examples in cinema of the synthesis of visual imagery and music. To have managed to make such extraordinary films under the watchful eye of Stalin the Terrible was an achievement in itself. The fact is that the collaboration between the loftily intellectual, highly articulate, homosexual Eisenstein and Prokofiev, the down-to-earth, outspoken, rather naïve, married father of two, was astonishing in its synchronicity.
When they first joined forces in 1937, both Eisenstein and Prokofiev had been accused of “formalist tendencies.” While they had been gallivanting over Europe and the U.S., Stalin’s grip on the state had hardened and the Soviet Union was experiencing forcible collectivisation in agriculture and forcible proletarianism in the arts. By the end of 1932, the slogan “Socialist realism,” a phrase attributed to Stalin himself, was de rigueur in the arts. Socialist realism had a dialectical antithesis: formalism—in other words experimental or modern art.
While the Union of Soviet Composers, established to safeguard Socialist realism in Soviet music, was keeping an eye on Prokofiev, the Stalin appointees who ran Mosfilm tried to protect Eisenstein from the temptations of formalism. Prokofiev, who had been living abroad since 1917, with only a few visits home, decided to settle in Moscow permanently in 1936. His musical language during his long absence, nine years of which were spent in Paris, was marked by jagged tonal shifts, aggressive harmonies, humor, and mordant satire. He had grown increasingly disillusioned with what seemed to him the artificial nature and narrowly restricted appeal of contemporary music in Western Europe, and became more aware of the ties that bound him to his native country and the possibilities that it promised him as a composer. Later in his life he wrote, “the cardinal virtue (or sin, if you like) of my life has been the search for an original musical language of my own. I detest imitation. I detest hackneyed methods. I always want to be myself.” As he was to discover, the Soviet Union was not the ideal climate in which an “original” artist could thrive.
Eisenstein, as cosmopolitan a figure as Prokofiev, had returned to the Soviet Union in 1932, after three years in the capitalist West. He had been to Paris, Berlin, New York, and Hollywood, before embarking on his doomed attempts to complete Que Viva México! in Mexico. Since his return home, Eisenstein was persona non grata, and was prevented from making films. His one attempt, Bezhin Meadow, had been aborted and seemingly destroyed. However, he was offered the possibility of making Alexander Nevsky, about the saint-hero of 13th-century Russia, while surrounded by KGB agents and collaborators faithful to Party policy.
Although stylistically much less experimental than his previous work, Alexander Nevsky has what Eisenstein called a “symphonic structure,” derived from his close collaboration with Prokofiev. The composer welcomed the opportunity of working on the score of a film. He had spent some time in Hollywood film studios, making a careful study of film music techniques with the thought of applying them to his work in Soviet cinema.
“The cinema is a young and very modern art that offers new and fascinating possibilities to the composer,” he commented. “These possibilities must be utilised. Composers ought to study and develop them, instead of merely writing the music and then leaving it to the mercy of the film people.”
Eisenstein, who had yet to make a sound film, had already been inspired by its use in Walt Disney cartoons. “Disney’s most interesting—most valuable—contribution has been his skill at superimposing the ’drawing’ of a melody on top of a graphic drawing…He has an incomparable feel for an international gesture in music, and he can weave this gesture into the outline of his figures. Disney is a genius at doing this. No one can do this apart from him.” It was Disney’s ability to match these “gestures” that he and Prokofiev attempted to emulate in Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible.
During the making of the former, Prokofiev would watch the rushes, note the timing of a sequence, and then leave around midnight, promising to deliver new music at noon the following day. True to his word, he would arrive punctually in his little blue car, with music that harmonised perfectly with the images he had seen. For the “Battle on the Ice” sequence the composer produced a brilliant “tone poem” in a matter of days, merely on the basis of Eisenstein’s sketches and spoken ideas.
When it came to recording the soundtrack, Prokofiev was actively involved at all the stages, experimenting with dramatic microphone distortions and using the Mosfilm bathtub as a percussion instrument. Eisenstein explained: “There are sequences in which the shots were cut to a previously recorded music track. There are sequences for which the entire piece of music was written to a final cutting of the picture…in the battle scene where pipes and drums are played for the victorious Russian soldiers, I could not find a way to explain to Prokofiev what precise effect should be ’seen’ in his music for this joyful moment. Seeing that we were getting nowhere, I ordered some ’prop’ instruments constructed, shot these being played (without sound) visually and projected the results for Prokofiev—who almost immediately handed me an exact ’musical equivalent to that visual image of pipers and drummers which I had shown him.’” As the action of Alexander Nevsky takes place in the 13th century, there was a temptation to make use of the actual music of the period, but the Catholic choral singing was considered far too remote from contemporary audiences to have much effect.
If one analyses the film in terms of grand opera, the surface simplicity is deepened. Nevsky’s orations can be seen as arias, the scenes between Vassili and Gavrilo as duets. There are trios (Vassili, Gavrilo, and Olga), choruses (the fishermen, the masses), the dying men on the battlefield each crying—or singing—out in a fugue for their loved ones, and a ballet (“The Battle on the Ice”) underlined by the dramatic use of Prokofiev’s score, including songs (all of which the composer developed into his symphonic cantata Alexander Nevsky). The music often takes a broadly satirical approach, switching briskly from the uplifting (the Russians) to direful, menacing chords (the Germans), and there’s a comic “glug glug” coda to the drowning of the enemy under the ice.
Naturally, Alexander Nevsky, a patriotic pageant depicting the defeat of Teutonic invaders, was withdrawn from distribution after the infamous Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact had been signed in August 23, 1939, only reshown appropriately when the Nazis invaded Russia two years later. Suddenly the bad guys who had become the good guys were the bad guys again.
At the same time as Alexander Nevsky, Prokofiev was working on Semyon Kotko, a “heroic and constructivist” opera on a Soviet theme. He found this in a story by Valentin Katayev, “I Am the Son of Working People,” a peasant drama of the Civil War, played out in 1918 when the communists in the Ukraine still had to contend with German troops as well as counter-revolutionaries.
In the opera, the Germans are characterized, as they had already been in Alexander Nevsky, by viciously dissonant harmony. Although less successful when consciously attempting the broad gestures required to express bluff, optimistic communist emotions, the work also finds room for some lyrical love music and some vividly colourful ensembles. Because of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, it was necessary to change the operatic enemies from Germans to Ukrainian nationalists in Semyon Kotko when staged in June 1940. Even such drastic actions didn’t soothe Stalin’s paranoia; Semyon Kotko was “removed” from the official repertoire and was not “politically rehabilitated” until 1970.
Dmitri Shostokovich wrote in his memoirs: “Semyon Kotko was put into production at the Stanislavski Opera Theatre by Vsevolod Meyerhold. It was his last work in the theater. In fact, he never finished it; the director was arrested, but the work went on as if nothing had happened. This was one of the terrible signs of the age; a man disappeared, but everyone pretended that nothing had happened. The name Meyerhold immediately disappeared from conversations and Prokofiev turned to Eisenstein, his friend. The word “friend” is used as a convention here, particularly when it’s used for two men like Eisenstein and Prokofiev. I doubt that either of them needed friends. They were both remote and aloof, but at least Prokofiev and Eisenstein respected each other. Eisenstein had also been a student of Meyerhold’s, so Prokofiev asked the film director to bring the production of Semyon Kotko to completion. Eisenstein refused. The political climate had changed by then, and in that wonderful era attacks on Germans, if only in an opera, were forbidden. The opera’s future looked doubtful. Why get mixed up in a politically dubious venture. So Eisenstein said, “I don’t have the time.” He found time, as we know, for Die Walkure.
The Bolshoi Theatre had invited Eisenstein to stage Die Walkure “in the mutual interests of German and Russian cultures.” Eisenstein eagerly accepted the new challenge as it presented him with an opportunity to apply of Wagner’s ideas of combining theater, music, literature, and myth into one medium, which concurred with his own vision of film as synthesis; film had become the new Gesamkunstwerk.
During the summer of 1941, Eisenstein was at his dacha at Kratovo, 40 kilometres southeast of Moscow, when news came through of the German attack on Moscow. Prokofiev, who was also at his dacha in Kratovo working on his ballet Cinderella, described the day. “On the warm sunny morning of June 22, I was sitting at my desk when suddenly the watchman’s wife appeared, looking greatly upset. ’The Germans have invaded us,’ she gasped. ’They say they’re bombing our cities.’ The news staggered me…I hurried over at once to see Sergei Eisenstein who lived not far from us. Yes, it was true.” In the autumn of 1941, Moscow came under heavy bombardment, and one midnight in mid-October, Eisenstein and other filmmakers received instructions to evacuate the city. The very next morning the exodus began by the train that was to take them 12 days and nights into the heart of Central Asia, to Alma Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan.
In March 1942, Eisenstein wrote to Prokofiev, who was in Tblisi, the capital of Georgia, asking him to compose the music for Ivan the Terrible. Prokofiev replied, “I am finishing up the last bars of War and Peace, thus very shortly I’ll be ready to submit to your bondage.”
Although the bulk of the music was composed after the film had been shot, Prokofiev travelled to Alma Ata in May, bringing with him the score of War and Peace to continue its orchestration. As the latter work progressed, Prokofiev acquainted Eisenstein with the opera, scene by scene, until the latter was making suggestions for the production.
Eisenstein was set to direct the opera, but the Bolshoi decided that a new production of such a large-scale work was unwise in wartime, and War and Peace was first heard in a concert version in Moscow in the summer of 1945. Eisenstein was too ill to take it on when it was finally staged in Leningrad in June 1946, though many of the designs were based on the sketches he made in Alma Ata. Eisenstein’s experience on Die Walkure and his work on War and Peace helps explain much of the “operatic” aspect of his greatest achievement: Ivan the Terrible parts one and two.
As he celebrated the coming of 1946 and the success of part one, which won the Stalin Prize, Eisenstein had no inkling of the bitter struggle which loomed against two enemies: Stalin and Death. A few months later, Stalin saw the second part of Ivan the Terrible and disliked it. There are those who believed, and still believe, that the reason for his dislike was that, as the story developed, the Tsar’s acts of cruelty in the name of a unified Russia came uncomfortably close to home. As a result, the second half of the film was shelved and only released, as if from prison, 10 years after Eisenstein’s death from a heart attack on February 11, 1948, less than a month after his 50th birthday.
In the post-war period, Prokofiev’s music was now seen as a grave example of formalism, and was branded “anti-democratic.” With many works banned, most concert and theater administrators panicked and would not program Prokofiev’s music at all, leaving him in severe financial straits. Ironically, Prokofiev died of a massive brain haemorrhage at the age of 61 on March 5, 1953, the same day that Stalin’s death was announced.
Ronald Bergan, British film historian and critic, is a regular contributor to The Guardian. The latest of his many books is Film Isms…Understanding Cinema.