Thursday, 23 January 2014

"Closer at Hand, and Fiercer": Fear Appeals and Resonance in Alexander Nevsky

In Alexander Nevsky, Sergei Eisenstein uses a scene from Russian history as a historical analogy to prepare the Soviet Union for a defense of their homeland. In doing so, he sets up the drama of an agonistic ritual between good and evil where patriotic Russians are placed on a moral pedestal whereas Germans and dissenting Russians are denied all legitimacy. Eisenstein exploits the potentialities in this drama for fear appeals and resonance in order to instill an attitude and prepare the Russian people to respond to a potential call to arms against the Germans. 

Alexander Nevsky portrays a social movement where a large ethnic group, the Russians, unite in the purpose of becoming an independent nation. As Stewart, Smith, and Denton mention in Persuasion and Social Movements, "Social movements are organized from the bottom up with leaders that emerge as the movement develops and sees the need for leaders with unique abilities" (6). It is established early in the film that the dream of Russia is one shared by almost all Russians, which is perhaps made clearest by the chorus chanting, "We'll never yield our Russian land. We'll crush every invader." Then, as the rich merchants of Novgorod argue that "we can buy our safety," Olga Danilovna again invokes the dream of Russia, asking, "You would sell away Russia?" A merchant replies, "Where is Russia? When did you ever see such a thing?" indicating that Russia at this time is not an undisputed institutionalized fact. It is still an uninstitutionalized vision which only has life as a social movement. Yet the dream of Russia wins the argument and the voice of the collective calls for Alexander Nevsky to become the leader of the movement. The film ends with the institutionalization of the social movement as Alexander proclaims, "Russia lives!" effectively transforming the social movement into a social movement organization. By using a story from their own history, Eisenstein could display a war against the Germans as a consistent pattern of behavior for Russians, rather than an aberration. Thus tapping into what Daniel O'Keefe calls the "general desire for consistency" (23).

The quest for Russian independence is portrayed as a moral struggle between good and evil, where this movement alone "constitutes an ethical, virtuous, principled, and righteous force with the moral obligation to act in the name of and for the good of, the people" (15), with exaggerated "strength, unity, and intellectual and moral legitimacy" (16). Strangely enough, a quasi-Christian agonistic ritual between the good, the evil (including the Germans and "second Judas" Russians) is invoked to motivate a population in defense of a Communist state.

Eisenstein makes liberal use of what O'Keefe describes as "fear appeals" in order to move people to action (226). The threat severity is the highest imaginable ("They're beating and killing everyone they encounter . . . They're torturing women whose sons and husbands fought against them"), as is the threat vulnerability ("we poor people, we face death under the Germans"). Meanwhile, Alexander guarantees the response efficacy ("We will beat them by spring!"), and the display of clumsy but brave Russian soldiers shows that everyone can contribute ("even a sparrow has a heart"). An alternative to war is impossible in this zero-sum game: The bishop proclaims that "All who refuse to submit to Rome shall be destroyed," as children are thrown into the fire, while Alexander explains that the Germans are "closer at hand, and fiercer" than the Mongols. "And they cannot be bought off by tributes." This is a fight where there can only be one winner.

The real genius of this propaganda film is having Alexander establish Soviet foreign policy as the centuries old law of the land. By anchoring this military doctrine to the esteem of a national hero, Eisenstein effectively convinces people to change their attitudes by relating the change "to something in which the persuadee already believes" (34), creating resonance with his audience. In addition, Eisenstein fills the film with Russian proverbs, effectively connecting the current Russia with the past. The government supported this connection with visual symbols like the Order of Alexander Nevsky, a military decoration reinstituted in 1942.

By displaying the war of 1242 as an analogy to the situation in 1938, Eisenstein is able to use fear appeals and resonance to move the Russian people to war and suppress dissent. The attitude he tries to instill is perhaps clearest when Alexander proclaims even defeat an act of treason, "If we had lost, Russia would have never forgiven us. Tell that to your children. If you forget it, you will all be a second Judas. A traitor to the Russian land." This is internal persuasion, aimed at Russians to instill militant patriotism.