In the sixteenth century, Ivan Vasilievich (Nikolay Cherkasov), Archduke of Moscow, has himself crowned Tsar of All the Russias. His aim is to unite his country and make it glorious, but he must contend with enemies both without and within its borders — most notably the boyars, high-ranking Russian aristocrats whom he considers far too powerful and self-serving. His quest for national greatness soon takes a heavy personal toll.
Director Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible was planned as a trilogy. The first part premiered in 1944, but although the second film was completed in 1946, it wasn’t released to the public until twelve years later, and only a few reels of the third were ever shot. One problem was Eisenstein’s poor health; he would die in 1948 at age fifty. Another was Joseph Stalin’s reaction to the second film, in which Ivan’s increasingly brutal regime seemed to parallel his own. Consequently, he delayed its release until Eisenstein could “correct” it, but the director’s health issues and subsequent death prevented that from happening.
I was aware of some of this background information going into the films, and it added an extra layer of interest to an already engaging story, one full of intrigue, treachery, corruption and class warfare. The reverent title cards at the end of the first part’s opening credits suggest that Ivan will be presented as a heroic figure (they include phrases such as “the military glory of our Motherland,” tailor-made to appeal to a Soviet audience late in World War II), but while that may seem to be Eisenstein’s intent early on, his Ivan becomes more and more fragile, unstable and dangerous over time.
However, what really caught my attention was the films’ style. It’s easy to see that Eisenstein got his start in the silent era, because he had a magnificent gift for visually striking compositions. (Side note: It’s been several years since I watched 1925’s Battleship Potemkin, the director’s best-known film, and I don’t feel confident enough to draw any direct comparisons with his silent work.) Whether they depict a snaking mile-long line of Ivan’s supporters or a mask lying forgotten on the floor after a revel, many of the shots are works of art in their own right. The sets and costumes add a great deal to the films’ visual power as well (I particularly enjoyed the religious icons adorning the walls and the chessboard-like Polish court, suggestive of political maneuvering), and so does the use of light, shadows and, in a nightmarish banquet scene, color.
The acting, too, is highly stylized, deliberate to the point that the gestures sometimes look mechanical, with much turning of heads, gazing into the distance and dramatic posing. More than once, I felt as if I were watching an animatronic display at a Russian history museum, or perhaps a rather amateurish pageant. (This is not to disparage the cast members and their talent; the stylization is so pervasive that it was clearly an artistic choice, presumably on Eisenstein’s part.) Eventually, I grew accustomed to it, more or less — even in the second part, I could hardly help giggling at a few over-the-top moments — and I did come to feel that it suited the subject matter. At the very least, it added a bizarre edge to the films and prevented them from ever becoming dull. For a variety of reasons, I found Ivan the Terrible compelling throughout, and I wish Eisenstein had been able to complete the trilogy.
Two final things to note: First, the score was composed by Sergei Prokofiev, which might interest music lovers. Secondly, I found the plot easy enough to follow, despite my meager knowledge of Russian history; that said, reading up on Ivan and his era before watching the films would, no doubt, enrich the experience.
This post is part of the 2016 Blind Spot Series, hosted by The Matinee. My full list can be found here.