DVD Ivan The Terrible: Parts 1 And 2
“I will be a man of steel,” declares Nikolay Cherkasov’s Ivan IV in the first part of a planned trilogy by Sergei Eisenstein chronicling the turbulent reign of the eponymous 16th century Russian Tsar. Another self-styled man of steel, Joseph Stalin, signalled his approval by awarding the film a Stalin Prize for excellence. A year later, however, Stalin reacted to the second instalment by promptly banning it. Eisenstein would never make another film, and Part II, which Eisenstein called his suicide note, would not be screened until 1958, ten years after Eisenstein’s death and five years after Stalin’s. A tale of two tyrants, then, with a back-story which demonstrates the difficulties facing the artist under totalitarian rule; but the films themselves remain fascinating in their own right.
Part I opens with Ivan’s coronation as the self-declared Tsar of all the Russias. His speech urging the need for a united Russia and warning of enemies both within and without her borders is accompanied by disgruntled mutterings from the attendant boyars, who see their own power threatened by Ivan’s rise to power. The source of Ivan’s fears is soon made evident when celebrations marking the Tsar’s marriage to Anastasia Romanoyna are interrupted by an angry mob of commoners. Having already burned several boyar palaces, they storm the Tsar’s palace and complain that the Tsar is being led astray by the Tsarina’s family (the Romanovs), the Glinskys and the Zakharins. No sooner has Ivan calmed the crowd, before envoys arrive from the khanate of Kazan, demanding the complete submission of the Russian ruler and his people. Ivan’s immediate response is to declare war against Kazan.
Ivan’s campaign against Kazan is victorious, but during his return he falls seriously ill. Believing himself at death’s door, Ivan sends for his relatives and orders them to swear allegiance to his son, the infant Dmitri. Ignoring Ivan’s desperate plea that they do for the sake of the kingdom’s security, the nobles instead side with Ivan’s aunt, Efrosinia Staritska, who urges them to back her own son, Vladimir. One of the Tsar’s closest friends, the ambitious and duplicitous Kurbsky, is on the verge of joining with the boyars, when he learns that the Tsar’s illness may not be as grave as first thought. Hurriedly, he swears allegiance to Ivan’s son just as Ivan rises from his sickbed. As a reward for what he perceives as unwavering loyalty, Ivan announces that Kurbsky will lead an army to defend the western border of the kingdom against the Livonians and Poles. At the same time, Ivan dispatches Alexei Basmanov, a commoner he sympathises with, to the south to take care of the Crimean border.
It is not long before news arrives of Kurbsy’s defection, while the treachery of the boyars continues as the Tsarina falls victim to their plotting, after drinking from a cup of wine poisoned by Efrosinia. As the body of the dead Tsarina lies in state at the cathedral, a distraught Ivan appears to reach breaking point, questioning his right to rule and wondering if his wife’s death is a punishment from God. He recovers after Alexei and Malyuta, another commoner raised to power, rally round him. They advise him to surround himself with men loyal to him, who will take responsibility for the dirty work necessary to weed out the Tsar’s enemies. Accepting their offer, Ivan declares he will abdicate and departs Moscow until such time as the people call for his return. The film closes with a procession of people marching to recognise Ivan, who, through their support and recognition, now rules with absolute power through the will of the people.
Part II: The Boyars’ Plot
Part II opens in the court of King Sigismund of Poland, to whom Kurbsky swears allegiance. The Polish king promises to make Kurbsky ruler of Ivan’s territories, once he exploits the Tzar’s absence by conquering them. The plan is foiled when an emissary announces that Ivan has returned to Moscow.
Back home, Ivan takes steps to punish his disloyal subjects by instigating a policy of land redistribution: confiscating the boyars’ lands to the state, then reinstalling them as managers, increasing his own power at their expense. Ivan’s former friend, Philip, who left court to become a monk at the start of the Tsar’s reign, returns and accepts Ivan’s offer to become metropolitan of Moscow on the condition that he is given the right to intercede for condemned men. Although Ivan agrees to this, it is not long before he orders the execution of three of Philip’s kinsmen, beheading them before Philip can use his right.
As Ivan begins to suspect that the Tsarina may have been poisoned, the boyars petition Philip to help their cause. Vowing to block Ivan’s abuse of power, Philip confronts him in the cathedral. As the argument escalates, Ivan proclaims that he will be exactly what the boyars call him – terrible – and has Philip seized. The boyars now decide that their only option is to assassinate Ivan, and select the young Pyotr to carry out the murder.
Ivan, now certain of Efrosinia’s guilt, invites Vladimir to a banquet and gets him drunk. It is not long before the guileless Vladimir lets slip that there is a plot to murder Ivan and replace him with Vladimir himself. Forewarned of the impending assassination attempt, Ivan suggests that Vladimir try being Tsar for a while. After being decked out with orb, sceptre, crown and royal robes, Vladimir is invited to lead them to the cathedral in prayer. In the cathedral, the assassin runs up and stabs the mock Tsar, and is immediately seized by Fyodor and Malyuta. Ivan orders them to release Pyotr, and thanks him for killing the tsar’s worst enemy. Efrosinia arrives, jubilant at the apparent death of Ivan, until she sees Ivan alive; rolling the corpse over, she realizes it is her own son. His enemies within Moscow now vanquished, a triumphant Ivan now announces he will turn his attention to those abroad…
By the late 1930s, Soviet art theory had shed its aversion towards celebrating individual heroism, and certain historical figures began appearing as heroes in Russian cinema – although with the historical facts carefully tailored to fit appropriate communist values. Having demonstrated his ability to adapt to these changes with his historical epic Alexander Nevsky (1938), Eisenstein was now encouraged to do the same for another historical figure: Ivan the Terrible. This, however, would be an altogether trickier proposition, for, as his title suggests, Ivan was one of the more infamous figures of Russian history. He was responsible for uniting the formerly disparate states of Russia and for expanding the edges of her empire at an unprecedented rate, but, at the same time, his reign is associated with extreme ruthlessness and brutality. For Stalin, though, he was exactly the sort of strong leader he wished to emulate. The Soviet regime, with its penchant for rewriting history, now wished to present him as a hero. Eisenstein, however, was an artist first, propagandist second. In effect, what he finally produced was a cinematic treatment of Ivan every bit as warped and bizarre as the Soviet’s revisionism; although, crucially, with the exact opposite effect.
Eisenstein’s early proletariat films, as well as Alexander Nevsky, were highly stylised, but they don’t come close to the stylistic extremity of the Ivan films.
Eisenstein’s early proletariat films, as well as Alexander Nevsky, were highly stylised, but they don’t come close to the stylistic extremity of the Ivan films. Less than two decades earlier, Eisenstein had attacked The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920) as an example of decadent theatricality, but in Ivan The Terrible we get aggressive angular compositions, oddly shaped figures skulking down low-ceilinged hallways and hunching through archways, their movements casting absurdly giant shadows against the wall – as stylised as anything thrown up by German Expressionism. The exaggerated, overly theatrical performances have been compared to silent cinema, but, in truth, they would be more at home in the Avant-Garde theatre – especially the crazed, almost inhuman performance of Chersakov, barely recognisable from his earlier Alexander Nevsky. Religious imagery, kabuki theatre and fairytale tropes combine with shots of singular disembodied eyes, which – though Eisenstein was most definitely no Surrealist – seem to come straight out of the cinema of Buñuel or a Dali painting.
As if the inclusion of such elements – in what was ostensibly a straight historical biopic – wasn’t disconcerting enough, Eisenstein also employs techniques which link him to another unexpected artist: Walt Disney. The Soviet director had met Disney in 1930 during a brief spell in the US, and would later write several essays in praise of the animator’s techniques. He was particularly taken by Disney’s use of totemism and animism, especially the way certain animal characters were used to represent a particular human trait. So, in his Ivan films, the central character is portrayed as a bird – his wing-like robes, the constant thrusting and tilting of his head, a highly unnerving habit of peering sideways – a portrayal which becomes progressively predatory as the film develops. The fiercely loyal Alexei, with his grizzly beard and floppy hair, is portrayed as a dog – in this role, he provides one of the film’s rare moments of comic relief; panting happily away by his master’s side as Ivan pats his head. Best of all, though, is the treacherous, serpentine Efrosinia – usually shot rising from the floor like a snake coiled up to attack, limbless in the cloak that rises up to cover her hair like a cobra’s hood, a slithering sinister presence.
The regal pacing of the film combined with Eisenstein’s rigorous sense of structure manages to contain these elements, but, by Part II, the undercurrent of barely suppressed terror and madness approaches Grand Guignol proportions. At times, it reaches such a pitch of intensity that it anticipates the surrealist horror of Ingmar Bergman’s Hour Of The Wolf (1968). In the film’s most nightmarish scene, Eisenstein even throws in a song and dance routine – courtesy of composer Sergei Prokofiev – and a brief colour sequence as a chorus line of mass-murderers – Ivan’s secret police force, the Oprichnina – are shown dancing in blood red hues. Just as that shift into Technicolour in The Wizard Of Oz (1939) signalled that we weren’t in Kansas anymore, here the viewer is left in no doubt that we are in hell.
It is as if in resorting to the fantastic and surreal, Eisenstein gets closer to the truth of what it must have felt like to actually live through Ivan’s terrible reign. All of this combines to create a film unlike anything seen before, and, suffice to say, not what the Soviet authorities had in mind. Stalin and his party anticipated a portrait of a strong leader triumphing; what Eisenstein gave them was a nightmarish ultra-reality – a fevered study of paranoia and moral corruption.
If Eisenstein somehow got away with it in Part I, by Part II he had clearly gone beyond the pale. There’s a kind of vicarious thrill to be had in pinpointing moments where you imagine Eisenstein on the threshold of breaching what the Soviet censors would find acceptable. The all too clear parallel drawn between Stalin’s own secret police force and the rising power of Ivan’s bloodthirsty Oprichnina. Or the scene where Ivan arrives to inspect the decapitated bodies of three summarily executed victims, chillingly uttering only two words: “Not enough.” Perversely – and it says a great deal about the man himself – Stalin was fine with all that; it was the presentation of Ivan’s humanity that he had a problem with, objecting to Eisenstein’s Ivan as “a weak and indecisive personality reminiscent of Hamlet.”
And the Ivan films – with their assassinations, court intrigue and complicated genealogies – are certainly Shakespearian; but more than anything they are profoundly Russian, shaped as much by the tumultuous events of the 20th century as by those of the 16th. Eisenstein saw the horror of Ivan’s reign just as clearly as he saw it in Stalin’s, and he communicated that horror with a remarkable lack of compromise given the political climate of the time. In the end, it was a pyrrhic victory – Eisenstein would never make another film, dying two years later from a heart attack undoubtedly exacerbated by the strains of this period – but it was a victory nonetheless. Finally, what emerges from Ivan The Terrible – two films in which there are no heroes – is the director’s own heroism, the courage and power of Eisenstein as an artist. They would be remarkable films in any age; given the conditions under which they were made their achievement is quite incredible.
Eisenstein’s early films are studied in film classes today for pioneering techniques taken for granted in modern filmmaking. In his Ivan films, he created a cinematic language every bit just as potent. These two studies of paranoia and megalomania still send shivers down the spine. Absolutely essential.
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