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Watch It for the Soundtrack: 'Alexander Nevsky'


Now let's revisit a very different time in Russia from the majesty of the big screen.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: The violins sound faintly as two lone figures, cloaks flying in the wind, are silhouetted against a vast, snowy landscape. Soon two great armies will clash, but for now all is quiet.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: This is the beginning of the climatic battle on the ice from Sergei Eisenstein's 1938 film "Alexander Nevsky." The music is by Sergey Prokofiev, and our cultural concierge, Jesse Kornbluth, says it's one of the most exciting experiences you'll ever have in front of a movie screen.

Jesse joins me now from our New York studios. Hi, Jesse.

JESSE KORNBLUTH: Hi, and I think you understate. I think it's the most exciting film music of all.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: The most exciting film music of all, Prokofiev.

KORNBLUTH: Because it's so completely matches sound to image that you'll only have to hear that to know what you're seeing.

SEABROOK: What are you seeing?

KORNBLUTH: Well, what you're seeing is the preparation for battle. What you're seeing is gray and white, a vast expanse of tundra. And then, of course, you see what Eisenstein is great at. You see shots of the different armies. And you get the sense of distance. And you get the sense that the German army is extremely evil, mechanistic, as chilly as Darth Vadar, and you get the sense that these Russians, of course, are heroic beyond all account.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Jesse, let's make sure people understand. You are the guy that we turn to when we're looking for the books, films, music that we might have overlooked. You've combed the archives of culture. This movie is called "Alexander Nevsky." We're talking about the battle scene in it. What is the movie about?

KORNBLUTH: Well, you know, the movie was made because Eisenstein needed to revive his career. I think what people may not know about - about Russia in the '30s - is when Stalin killed people, he also killed artists - writers, poets. It was very dangerous to have the wrong opinion. He did not kill film directors because they had an international reputation and it would have ruined his propaganda in America.

But Eisenstein was literally making the movie of his life because his career had gone way south and he needed to have a movie that put him in Stalin's good graces. So he decided, at Stalin's suggestion, to make a movie about Alexander Nevsky, who was a Russian who saved the country in 1242 when the Germans foolishly invaded.

And this was going to be a great patriotic propaganda movie. It turned out not to be. Because just as the film was coming out, the Germans and the Russians signed a non-aggression pact, and this film was - you know, suddenly had the wrong view. And it was very quickly shelved until the Germans again made the mistake in 1941 of invading Russia, and then it became the hit it was destined to be.

SEABROOK: He got Sergey Prokofiev to write the soundtrack.

KORNBLUTH: Right. And Prokofiev was hot, because Prokofiev had been very recently in Hollywood and he'd learned a lot from Disney and other filmmakers. And he was primed to write a really great score, and he did. He wrote, in my view, the greatest score in film history.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: War movies these days are so literal. They're bloody, they're loud, they're full of computer graphics; the sound, again, is just so outrageous, it's so loud. How does "Alexander Nevsky" compare to them?

KORNBLUTH: Well, you know, it's absolutely clear to me that Mel Gibson watched this film repeatedly before he made "Braveheart" because it's the same sort of thing. You know, two armies across a vast distance. The difference, of course, is when you see 1,000 soldiers in this movie you're seeing 1,000 people. And then you start seeing them close up and then you see these great shots.

And you get not exactly emotionally involved but roused. I mean, this is a film which doesn't make you want to kill. I mean, that's the function of heavy metal music. This film just makes you want to go out and find a great cause that you can give your all to.

SEABROOK: Jesse Kornbluth, thanks very much.

KORNBLUTH: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: You can find more of Jesse's picks for music, movies and books at his Web site, headbutler.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.