1944/1958; written and directed by Sergei Eisenstein; 99/82 mins
Part I: Ivan Vasilyevich, Tsar of Moscow, having subjugated the warring Boyars under one leader, is crowned Tsar of all the Russians. This is greeted with suspicion and hostility from the old-school nobility, chief amongst them, Efrosinia Staritska, Ivan’s malicious, scheming aunt who is desperate to put her own, child-like son, Vladimir, on the throne. Much political infighting ensues even as Ivan continues in his plans to fight back against the encroaching forces of the Tatars and the Livonians and trying to establish trade routes with England. Throughout, he learns the struggles of staying strong and true to himself when even victory for his country cannot stop those who wish to depose him.
Commissioned by Stalin at a point when Hitler’s forces were approaching Moscow and the Soviet Union’s best propagandists were being kept safe in Kazakhstan, this is clearly a story about post-revolutionary Russia and about as subtle as a hammer and a sickle to the face! Still – you can’t have one of the most important, groundbreaking filmmakers of all time steering it and not expect some pretty special stuff…
This film is played BIG! Thinking about it, though, it does seem to be in keeping with the theatrical nature of a lot of the staging of scenes. The actors do big eyes and hair and hand gestures but Eisenstein gives them big close-ups to complement that (easy to see that that as an influence on Sergio Leone). Concurrently, the staging does have characters clearly hiding from others in plain sight but it felt more like a Shakespearean thing*, a stage whisper, if you will.
Composition is something that doesn’t really seem to be valued quite as much in films anymore and it’s a shame. Here, there is some truly wonderful framing, in particular, a late scene in which Ivan looks out at thousands upon thousands of his people in a vast human caravan stretching back miles but he is the focal point! There is one shot in which we have the people lined up in the background and Ivan’s head comes down into frame, beard first. It’s not just the way the shots are lined up, though, it’s also the way in which the sets are constructed which looks as though it must have had some influence from the German Expressionism movement of the 20s.
Having mentioned big hair earlier, it should be pointed out Leonid Naumov and Nadezhda Buzina‘s costumes and Vasili Goryunov‘s make-up in this film which not only give it character but help take us through the journey of the characters. Again, not subtly but it does! When we first meet Ivan, there is a big build up but he does (intentionally so, I think) look like a total dork. As the film progresses, his look becomes increasingly more severe as his strength increases and his mind goes. For however austere and tough it may be to watch, it is that greatest filmmaking that is all in the service of character and plot.
Part II: In which Ivan continues to fight against the nobility in Moscow, haunted by his troubled childhood and the murder of his wife. With Kurbsky having defected to Poland and Efrosinia still lurking in the shadows, Ivan has followers but has a potentially crippling psychological block which prevents him from keeping anybody too close. As one confidante states; “You don’t show any gratitude or affection to those most loyal to you, who’d give their lives for you. Who carry the weight of your power on their strong shoulders!” The course of the narrative shows how a life in politics led him to have to live up to his nickname.
Made just after Part I but not released until 1958 because it ran afoul of Stalin’s idea for what the film should be, it’s easy to see how, if Stalin saw himself as Ivan, it would’ve irked the man from whom the phrase “cult of personality” stems. To most others, the film would seem to open the titular tyrant and try to explain or explore the events which snowballed to create the pre-Manson visage and temperament that stalks those corridors of power. Clearly, making propaganda films means exactly that. Complete and utter deference, not waiting to see if the apparent criticism in one scene may lead to further arse-licking down the line. Mind you, it’s not the worst thing Stalin did. I suppose his treatment of the film and it’s maker does offer a small key to his personality, though.
In his review of the film, Roger Ebert said; “to hail Ivan the Terrible is more a duty than a pleasure” and I have to agree. This is what I tend to call ‘Eat Your Greens’ cinema. It’s good for you, Simon, so consume or die! It’s the films that, as a serious film lover, you kind of have to watch to help further your knowledge and understanding. Eisenstein is one of those director’s you feel obliged to have a go with. Sometimes, like with Casablanca, you hit upon a real gem that everyone told you was great and lo and behold – it bloody well is! Here, I did definitely get the heavy eyelids towards the end. I think that’s a lot to do with the fact that, whilst on the visual front you’d be hard pressed not to appreciate the magnificence of it, emotionally, it’s a harder nut to crack. Maybe that’s a case of time and borders: an old Russian film will naturally have a sensibility barrier for me in New Zealand in 2017. Still, as I said with The Firemen’s Ball, that – ideally – shouldn’t be a problem but here, it is.
Nevertheless, there is a minutely controlled care and intuition for the image on show here which mops the floor with almost all films I’ve ever seen. Probably only two or three filmmakers before or since could compete with Eisenstein on that front and if you’re interested in cinematography, you should definitely make this a port of call soon!
*Yeah! Check the theatrical knowhow on this guy!