Sergei Eisenstein is one of the great directors. A pioneer of montage editing, inventive camera placement, and rousing action set pieces, Eisenstein was also a deeply cerebral filmmaker and a Marxist deconstructionist of film technique who put together some of the best theoretical pieces on movies ever written. In many ways he represented the leading edge of experimental Russian cinema in the cultural renewal that followed the Bolshevik Revolution. But like many of his contemporaries, things didn’t go so well for the director after Stalin came to power, and his film output dwindled. Still, with World War II raging and the Soviet Union suffering the brunt of the casualties, Eisenstein was called on to create a series of films meant to inspire the Russian people against the Germans. The director set out to craft a trilogy about Ivan the Terrible, the first tsar of all Russia, using the 16th century monarch as a representation of the supreme power of the State and a symbol of unity for the Russian people. Ivan the Terrible, Part I (Ivan Groznyy, 1944) was considered a triumph upon its release, and features some of the most stunning visuals found in any film, as it tackles the opening years of Ivan’s reign from his coronation to his first major victory over the scheming nobility. But Eisenstein’s success was short-lived. Though Part II was finished, it did not meet the approval of Stalin, who forbade the film from being released. Stalin also pulled the plug on the production of Part III, of which little footage has survived. Eisenstein passed away not long after. (99 min.)
S. – It has been a long time between Russian propaganda films here at FWAMY and I was looking forward to having my plebian spirits roused by the magnificent Eisenstein. Battleship Potemkin is one of my favorite films watched to date and I was keen for more, although this was not what I was expecting. Visually, Ivan the Terrible, Part I is in overdrive right from the beginning. There is a sense of unreality in the settings that vary from enormous and ostentatious to dark and cramped and are populated with extreme, yet one-dimensional, characters that are the epitome of evil, or strength, or purity, or boorishness. There is simply no room for subtlety or uncertainty in Eisenstein’s fairy-tale of the first Tsar of Russia. It reminded me very much of a cartoon with the fantastical sets and extreme close-ups of shadowy, leering faces. Indeed the story-line also has a Brother’s Grimm vibe with a wicked witch poisoning a pretty young woman by tricking her devoted prince. Every scene plays out with high drama, which got to be tiresome. But in terms of visual impact this film is like nothing else I’ve seen.
J. – The visual appeal of the movie really is off the charts. A few yammers back I said that The Magnificent Ambersons was the best-looking black-and-white movie I have ever seen. I still stand by that with regard to the deep and awe-inspiring cinematography of Welles’ film, but if you’re going to talk strictly about shot composition, Ivan the Terrible is probably the most beautiful black-and-white movie I can think of. We have had a few films so far where we’ve said it was impossible to take a bad screen grab. That’s a been a nice, if hyperbolic, way to say that we thought a film was lovely to look at, but it is literally true with Ivan. I’d be willing to bet if I just hit pause at random every frame would have been a winner.
But I do think that visual splendor comes with a price in this film. The shots in this movie are almost entirely static — actually, I’m not so sure the camera moves even once during the course of the movie. That certainly allows for everything to be hyper-precise within the frame — hence the spectacular compositions. But it also adds to the unnaturalness of the performances as actors often seem more concerned with hitting very specific marks than performing (although this generally didn’t bother me so much) and ultimately to the slowness of the film. And that slowness could easily be viewed as a real problem — and something of a surprise given that this is a movie where a whole lot of events happen within a relatively short run time. I definitely want to get back to the performances and characterizations, S., but I know you struggled with the pacing. Why do you think it is that a film featuring a battle, assassinations, insanity, and intrigue felt so slow?
S. – The sluggishness may have resulted from the static camera, which allowed you the pleasure of taking in the visual detail but did not serve the action. It stands in stark contrast when compared with Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, which was absolutely minimalist in its approach, yet successfully employed intense lingering close-ups to generate tension. During Dreyer’s film my heart was constantly in my mouth as the viewer felt they were inhabiting the scenes of Joan’s despair, whereas, the trials and treasons swirling around Ivan always felt rather flat to me. It is hard to understand given the wealth of material presented and a director like Eisenstein at the helm. In Battleship Potempkin the action was riveting and a palpable sense of comraderie was established among the crew of the battleship. The performances here felt so unnatural that I had no sympathy for any of the main players, nor did the events unfolding hold much intrigue. While I was impressed by the staging and the shot compositions the story itself just did not come alive to me. I am curious J., what were you experiencing that I missed?
J. – Well, to be honest I agree with pretty much everything you said, S. I suppose the visual pizzazz just carried me far enough to push some of the things that might otherwise have disagreed with me to the background — but there are some other factors as well. But before I get to those, I think The Passion of Joan of Arc is a good starting point for getting into this film, and not just because of the parallels related to medieval(ish) intrigue and conniving priests. Both movies are full of impassioned and heavily stylized performances, but I think what ultimately dulls the impact of some of the performances in Ivan the Terrible is sound. In Dreyer’s film Joan of Arc cannot be heard, so her face must say everything; Ivan can speak his mind, which generally means that his body needn’t do so much of the talking. Yet Ivan the Terrible, Part I is essentially a silent film with speaking parts — and by that I mean that you could easily strike away the audio track without really losing anything from the performances. The acting is very broad and the reactions and even the movements of the characters are highly reminiscent of silent film performances — there is a lot of exaggerated slinking about and goggling of eyes in this movie.
But this is not a great silent film director struggling to incorporate sound into his repertoire. The acting style in this film is clearly a very deliberate choice by Eisenstein. To be confident of that one need only see his earlier film Alexander Nevsky (1938), which features much more naturalistic acting (although there is a fair share of super-hero posing in that movie by Ivan the Terrible star Nikolai Cherkasov). I think Eisenstein went with the older, pantomimy acting style for this film because of the subject matter and because the film was meant as propaganda — and subtlety and propaganda rarely go together. But to my mind by having the actors perform in this way Eisenstein was able to subvert the expectations of the propaganda while still delivering the State-sponsored message. It is a neat trick to use Ivan — the embodiment of absolute power — as a way to represent the Soviet authority, and a supremely ironic one as well given that it was the Communists who toppled the monarchy, killed the last tsar and his family, and supposedly distributed power to the people. On one level — the State-sanctioned level — the story is about the union of the Russian people under the central power of the State to create a powerful nation that could resist foreign incursion, but it is also about the unraveling of an increasingly mad despot. In that regard I think the acting style works wonderfully well at creating a sustained mood of over the top strain and insanity — using unreality to speak to the true, bitter reality of Ivan’s reign and almost hiding this dig at the State in plain sight from the Soviet authorities. That is, the stylization makes everything unreal and therefore more palatable to those authorities who might otherwise take a more realistic film to task. And this mood really appealed to me even if the action was at times a bit lethargic.
S. – I would agree that the mental anguish of Ivan was strikingly conveyed and it was not what I expected from a propaganda film. Instead of the strong leader revered by the people we see a man driven to distraction by the political machinations undermining his vision for the country. The exaggerated style makes the version of events a parable, where the leader must endure various slings and arrows before the wisdom of his ways is borne out by the eventual support of the masses. It does appear that a whole lot of history was left out to service the impression of Ivan as an unappreciated hero. Yet the message is clear that Russia must stick together to be strong enough to conquer her enemies. The overly dramatic acting style was too much for me, but the grand musical score by Sergei Prokofiev and the wonderful imagery were more than fair compensation for the stilted and stagy performances. In particular the lead image for this yammer is unforgettable.
J. – I think that’s pretty much spot on, S. And I do believe that one’s appreciation of this film will rest largely in the degree to which they find the visuals appealing. For me they were so ecstatic and amazing that I was largely able to overlook the pacing issues. I feel like Eisenstein gambled here in much the same way that Kubrick would over two decades later with 2001: A Space Odyssey. That is, he knew he had something spectacular looking on his hands and let those moments linger for maximum effect. Ivan the Terrible lacks the narrative chutzpah and humming tension of Kubrick’s dive into the development of human consciousness, but there’s no shortage of moments to admire.
J. – Hi there, reader. We’ve been a bit remiss with the updates of late (nearly 2 months sans posting!? For shame!!) and we sincerely apologize for that. So as a gesture towards us getting back on track we’re going to add a quick mini-write up to our Ivan, the Terrible, Part I yammer. Behold, Ivan the Terrible, Part II!!!
As we mentioned at the top of this post, Eisenstein’s intention was to make an Ivan the Terrible trilogy but that plan got thrown in the toilet because, well, Stalin. Part II was filmed but did not see the light of day until 1958, 13 years after it was completed, and Eisenstein had by that point passed away. I’m going to be flying solo on this because, as you probably noticed, S. wasn’t particularly taken with Part I and decided to give Part II a miss.
And that’s a true pity because I can say without hesitation that Part II is much superior to Part I. In truth, it is so much better that I am somewhat shocked that Part I is the film that made the Sight & Sound list. The notable hallmarks of Part I are all present in the sequel — exquisite compositions, stylized performances, and a focus on the power of the Russian State. However the pacing issues that have a tendency to make Part I drag at times are gone without sacrificing the power of the imagery. In no small part this is due to the film being full of bustling movement. This is a movie that casts away the slow skulking of the first film for intricate processions, musical numbers, and a general air of mania as Ivan begins to earn his nickname and his enemies find their plans crumbling. The film is also served well by not needing to delve into much exposition, as the groundwork laid in Part I allows for the characters to be more more active and less inclined to whisper history lessons to each other in palace corners.
I think the pacing issues in Part I can to some extent be attributed to the tone that S. mentioned above, namely that every scene is played out for high drama. That tonal homogeneity deprives the film of the ability to change things up and thereby vary the pace and intensity of the action on screen. Ivan the Terrible, Part II is much better in this regard, utilizing scenes that are much smaller in scope and intensity while balancing them with vigorously active or suspenseful sequences. An excellent example is a scene in which the tsar’s aunt (played with Wicked Witch of the West intensity by Serafina Birman) steps back from her scheming to sing a lullaby to her childish idiot son Vladimir (Pavel Kavochnikov). It’s a surprisingly tender scene that finally builds up the characters of these people conniving to depose Ivan rather than having them simply be silent movie bad guys.
It also sets up the payoff in the remarkable banquet scene and subsequent procession in the church. The banquet scene is probably the most famous sequence in the film, and justifiably so. Unlike the rest of the Ivan the Terrible film cycle, this scene is shot in color. But that’s putting it too simply; the film uses a Soviet process that only utilized two colors — red and blue — instead of the three used in the Technicolor process. As a result the film loses any touch with verisimilitude and takes on a wild, surreal palette. Eisenstein is savvy enough to play off this odd visual schema, throwing in a wild musical/dancing sequence that is rawly insane and bursting with energy and oddity, all cast in a scarlet glow. Likewise the drunken exchange between Ivan and Vladimir takes on a whole new flavor in the strange color environment, as if their intoxication has seeped into the film stock. The subsequent church scene in which Vladimir walks among candle-holding worshippers while wearing the tsar’s regalia is a master class in suspense. The outcome of that scene is never in doubt, but Eistenstein’s keen visual sense provides such an air of foreboding that it ratchets the tension and emotion to 11.
But more importantly these are just two excellent scenes among many in this film, which manages to touch upon so many aspects of power, justice, family, violence, duplicity, and madness. I can only imagine that its delayed release is what docked it a few points in the voting for the Sight & Sound list. Had this film come out in 1945 as intended, no doubt it wouldn’t have widened more than a few eyes. But the power of its lens on despotism, pride, and insanity is ultimately what sealed its fate. Part I felt to me like it contained a veiled critique of the Soviet State, but Part II just drags the secret police out into the light of day. Stalin apparently saw this Ivan as an attack on his own authority — but that is perhaps just one more big check in the film’s favor: Morally and artistically speaking, it’s generally a good thing not to be on Stalin’s side. (Seriously, take a look at Soviet art pre-Stalin and during Stalin. It’s shocking.)
In short, if you find yourself put off by the pacing of Ivan the Terrible, Part I, don’t give up on the story, because it is but a prelude to the really, really good stuff.