Apr. 22, 2009 - Issue #705: Great Outdoors 2009
Ivan the Terrible: Way to go, Eisenstein
In 1942, as Eisenstein devised his project, the Soviet Union was under a different tyrant, Stalin, and in the midst of war with Hitler's German forces, marching towards Moscow. Stalin saw himself as a modern-day Ivan, and Eisenstein's patently allegorical film radiates a sense of the necessity of absolute power, the dependable obedience of the masses, and the leader's military supremacy. It's propaganda posing as historical drama, until its endorser—Part I, released in late 1944, won the 1946 Stalin Prize—turned censor, suppressing Part II because Stalin (eliminator of domestic foes, genuine or not, sending them to the gulag or execution, even having Trotsky ice-picked in Mexico) disliked its portrayal of Tsar Ivan IV's paranoia and hesitation to eradicate the "boyars" (feudal nobles) opposing him. Part II wasn't released until 1958, ten years after Eisenstein's death (which aborted Part III).
Part I is largely theatrical, a kind of shadow-play with exaggerated postures and heavy looks. A similar expressionist acting style was at work in Eisenstein's groundbreaking Battleship Potemkin (staple of Introduction to Cinema courses) 20 years earlier, but that film was built on Eisenstein's collision theory of Soviet Montage, all cross-hatched compositions and quick cutting. (Another Montage director, Vsevolod Pudovkin, plays a fanatic here who declares the Tsarina and her family are bewitching Ivan.)
Ivan the Terrible has drawn-out scenes, with only some analytical editing and some symbolism, as when the crown is shown in close-up before being placed on Ivan's head. Ivan (Nikolai Cherkasov) is bird-like—the silhouette of a double-headed eagle spreads across his cheek—with his hawkish nose and the wing-like sleeves of his robe outspread. Aunt Efrosinia (Serafima Birman) is a hooded serpent, hatching another plot to topple the Tsar or hissing treacherous plans to his followers so son Vladimir can sit on the throne. The lines most obviously meant to resonate for Stalinist Russia, though, are those cautioning that enemies remain within—"But the Germans are not the only foes of our progress ... You, boyars, are worse."—and, at Part II's end, that Russia's great leader has protected Moscow (by then, the Soviet army had repulsed the Nazis and was marching on Berlin).
For all its long scenes and performances that can seem almost campy to today's viewer, Part I offers some remarkable lighting—Ivan's silhouette towering over a globe—and grand sets, from cavernous castle halls to Ivan's helmet-like encampment on a hill in the battlefield. The costumes are resplendent even in black-and-white, while the heroic score is by famous composer Sergei Prokofiev (unlucky enough to have his death eclipsed by Stalin, who departed on the same day in 1953).
Then there are the eyes: the single painted eye of God's truth that stares out between Ivan's supposed friend Andrei Kurbsky (Mikhail Nazvanov) as he longs for the Tsarina (Ludmila Tselikovskaya), whom he still loves, just after his veiled homoerotic gaze at Ivan; the Virgin Mary-like Tsarina's beatific view of her husband; the glower of Efrosinia. Looks are so full of ferocity that they keep drawing you in, making you watch.
Part II offers quicker scenes, flashbacks, even sharp stares into the camera and a burst into colour for 15 minutes, during a celebration where loyalist Fyodor cross-dresses and the theatricality becomes Hamlet-like, Ivan playing the fool to catch out Vladimir, trick Efrosinia and bait an assassin. Until then, Ivan, surrounding himself with an "iron ring" of loyalists, is racked with dark suspicions and paranoia most "grozny."
Grozny is also the capital of Chechnya, by 2003 the UN-declared "most destroyed city on earth," thanks to a truly terrible war waged by another iron-fisted leader, Vladimir Putin. From one Ivan to his cinematic recreation 400 years later (during the reign of humanity's worst mass-murderer) to the rule of a post-Communist, ex-KGB tyrant, "Ivan Grozny" is most revealing as an unintended allegory for Russian rulers' continuing will, in their aspiration for absolutism, to lead a powerful and menacing empire, regardless of those people far below who get crushed by an iron fist. V
Thu Apr 24 – Aun Apr 27 (7pm)
Ivan The Terrible, Parts I & II
Written & Directed by Sergei Eisenstein (with M. Filiminova for Part II)
Starring Nikolai Cherkasov, Serafima Birman
Metro Cinema (9828 - 101A Ave)
4Ivan the Terrible: Way to go, Eisenstein
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