Eisenstein’s final film sees him bravely turn Stalin’s dream project into a criticism of his whole regime
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Cast: Nikolay Cherkasov (Ivan Vasilyevich ‘the terrible’), Serafima Birman (Efrosinia of Staritsa), Pavel Kadochnikov (Vladimir of Staritsa), Mikhail Zharov (Malyuta Skuratov), Amvrosy Buchma (Alexei Basmanov), Mikhail Kuznetsov (Fyodor Basmanov), Lyudmila Tselikovskaya (Tsarina Anastasia), Mikhail Nazvanov (Prince Andrew Kurbsky); Andrei Abrikosov (Philip, Metropolitan of Moscow)
The Soviet Union is at war, but Sergei Eisenstein is riding high. Fully restored to favour with the powers-that-be in the USSR with his flashy-but-traditional propaganda pic Alexander Nevsky, the master-of-the-montage was personally selected by Stalin to direct a three-part epic on the dictator’s hero, Ivan the Terrible. (You might wonder what attracted the paranoid, bloodthirsty dictator to a strong man Tsar best known for ruthless purges…) Stalin wanted an epic painting Ivan as a hero, who sometimes did bad things for the right reasons, all wrapped up in a neatly accessible package.
And he almost got it. Part 1 was met with acclaim and the Stalin Prize. Presenting Ivan as a successful politician and soldier, a true strong man binding the nation together and winning the admiration of his people, outfoxing his enemies at court (even though they successfully secretly murder his wife Anastasia), who retreats into Cincinnatus-like retirement only to be dragged back to save the country. It was the General Secretary’s wish-fulfilment wet-dream. Then came Part 2.
Part 2 was was immediately locked away in the vaults and all work on Part 3 ended instantly (every frame of footage shot was burned). If Part 1 was the dictator’s ideal Ivan-as-Stalin, then Part 2 was Ivan-as-Stalin that he definitely didn’t want to see. Now Ivean was ‘the Terrible’ doubling down on his nickname. Even worse, he did this while appearing unhinged, paranoid or (worst of all) manipulated by his poisonous advisors, none more so than jovial Beria-like Malyuta Skuratov (Mikhail Zharov). This Ivan rubbed out opponents, used terror as tool and focused all his anger and vengeance on those around him. Not something Stalin wanted to see, or he was going to let anyone else see. Part 2 only emerged in 1958 ten years after Eisenstein’s death and 5 years after Stalin’s.
What the world ended up with, after they were allowed to see it, is a strange and hard-to-categorise film which has divided opinion for decades. To some it’s an artistic masterpiece, a triumph of symbolism and suggestion, with every shot crammed with intelligent and informed call-backs to artistic, psychological or sociological thinking. To others, it’s a somewhat turgid, hard-to-follow mess that serves as final expression of Eisenstein’s lack of interest in plot and character, not helped by his directions to the cast to echo Japanese theatre Kabuki style acting full of striking poses.
But you can’t deny the courage it must have taken Eisenstein to make this film. To have the guts to present something that deviated away from what history’s most ruthless dictator wanted and try and locate in it an unavoidable (if soft-pedalled) criticism of Stalinism. And can you blame Eisenstein if he tried to hide some of this behind art references and psychological games? Ivan the Terrible isn’t exactly easy – or fun – watching, but sometimes you just need to tip the hat to someone who has the guts to do things like this.
And there is plenty to admire in it. Eisenstein isn’t always recognised for his ability with the composition of shots – after all he’s the fast-cutting director’s dream – but Ivan the Terrible plays right back to his roots as a painter and designer. There are gorgeous shots here, my favourite being a looming close-up of Ivan’s face while behind him a never-ending procession of Russians slog through a white-out landscape to beg him to take back the throne. Ivan’s palace is a subterranean series of mole-like caverns, lavished with truly striking (and highly symbolic) devotional art. Firey angels are plastered across the walls above Ivan while plotting Boyars are shot huddled under mighty frescos of Death. The shadow work is extraordinary: light casts imposing, monstrous, giant black curtains. Astrolabe shadows dominate walls and advancing figures cast mighty shady pools in front of them.
Eisenstein takes his montage and arty suggestiveness of his editing work in Battleship Potemkin and October and translates it into images. The images do the work his banned formulist leanings had. Every image is rigidly thought-through and designed to make a specific implication or inference. It turns Ivan the Terrible into something ripe for analysis and exploration, the sort of film you could happily spend hours deconstructing.
It’s a film crammed with symbolism – some of it, if I’m honest, a little too clever-for-its-own-good. There are references to the work of Holbein, Botticelli, Rublev and a host of mythological figures. Sexual imagery is thrown in with blasting cannons at the siege of Kazan. It uses mirroring and contrasts throughout. Ivan’s coronation that opens in Part 1 will be echoed in a mock coronation of his would-be successor Vladimir (a fine performance of child-like simplicity and sweetness from Pavel Kadochnikov) in Part 2. As a child, Ivan will witness the death of his mother caught in the light of the doorway, very similar to the light in the doorway Vladimir will walk through to his death.
Characters are constantly positioned in framing that suggests (or hammers home) their characters, motivations and desires. Vladimir will be cradled in his arms in a confessional Freudian clinch with first his mother and then (in an identical shot) with Ivan. The mock jovial Malyuta is given the physicality of the faithful dog he claims to be, while the villainous Efrosinia (a pantomimic, hissable Serafima Birman) rises from the ground like the serpent she feels like in almost every scene. Most of these characters are drawn in the broadest, most unsubtle strokes. It makes for some laughably unsubtle moments, but also a sort of primitive energy.
Unfortunately, it is also a film that dumps traditional narrative and characterisation for something highly stylised and impressionistic. Nowhere is this clearer than in Nikolay Cherkasov’s performance as Ivan. Constructed of a series of wild-eyed poses that would not look out of place in a silent movie, this is an over-the-top performance of hyperbolic mannerisms that probably has to be seen to be believed. There is nothing natural about this at all. It is all deployed to create a series of artistic poses and effects: what it is not designed to do is create a character we can relate to or understand.
Maybe this is how Eisenstein hoped to get away with implicit criticism of Stalinism? Ivan endorses the purges that happen, but we don’t seem him organising and initiating them. Was that, to Stalin, the worst crime of all – after all a strong man leads, even if his leadership is cruel. It’s also why, perhaps, he turned Malyuta into a jovial fixer (nevertheless Mikhail Zharov gives the film’s finest performance) rather than the ruthlessly ambitious killer he was. Part 2 shows an Ivan who allows executions not just out of ruthless paranoia but also a weakness of personality. If all things, Stalin couldn’t take that.
Ivan the Terrible rockets along with very little sense of time, narrative or coherent, logical sense. Between the first and second scenes not only do years go by, but Cherkasov’s appearance changes so much it will take the viewer a few minutes to work out who he is. Characters sometimes go several scenes without being named. There is a Shakespearean pace to the narrative, even if it frequently flies over events, motivations, timescales and locations so quickly it’s hard to follow. It’s highly stylistic acting styles frequently make it hard for modern audiences not to raise a snigger.
Eisenstein was perhaps a little too keen to be seen as an artist, and Ivan the Terrible is at times – a bit like October – watching an overly enthusiastic art student showing you just how clever they can be. But, for all that, it’s intriguing and even if it’s not exactly entertaining, it offers many opportunities for intriguing analysis. And the very fact he dared to make a film that criticised Stalinism and then show it to Stalin is always going to be worth something.