A majestic synthesis of disparate forms, Sergei Eisenstein’s final film seems to be as much a ballet or an opera or a moving painting (or a mutant kabuki show) as it is a movie. As elaborately scored by the distinguished composer Sergei Prokofiev, the two-part Ivan the Terrible is a spectacle unlike any other.
Eisenstein followed up on his 1938 costume epic Alexander Nevsky with a portrait of the Muscovite warrior-king Ivan IV, a contemporary of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I who, known as “the Terrible” for his ruthlessness, was the author of the Russian state. Official art with a vengeance, Ivan the Terrible opens in 1547 amid the Byzantine pageantry of Ivan’s coronation and, moving from one crisis in his absolute authority to the next, manages a sustained intensity that is all the more remarkable for its relative absence of conventional action.
In Ivan, Eisenstein reinvented the historical epic of Alexander Nevsky as a chamber piece, at once megalomaniacal and claustrophobic. The conception is grandiose. Naturalism scarcely exists. The performances are as telegraphic and exaggerated as any in the silent cinema. The movie creates its own sign-system. Reaction shots reduced to close-up eye movements accentuate the pervasive atmosphere of intrigue, jealousy, and surveillance. Even the pageantry of battle is employed as a kind of shorthand for frozen hysteria. (Meanwhile, Prokofiev’s score juxtaposes two warring themes to suggest the two sides of Ivan’s personality—the dramatic clarion call of nobility vies with the jazz-inflected oboe trill of sickening suspicion.)
Not even two decades earlier, Eisenstein had attacked the ultra-expressionistic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as an example of a decadent theatricality. Here, using all the resources of mise-en-scène (shadow play, museum-quality props, outlandish costumes), and cutting on music or choreographed gesture, Eisenstein’s method goes beyond what the French called caligarisme to approach animation. Ivan is as stylized as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as detailed as Pinocchio. Although inspired by the elongated figures of El Greco, Nikolai Cherkasov’s stooped, skinny Ivan might equally have been modeled on a Disney vulture. (Indeed, while Eisenstein was preparing Ivan, he made notes for an essay on the American cartoon mogul, observing of Disney’s Peter and the Wolf, “How interesting! He and I both have—Prokofiev.”)
The extremity of Eisenstein’s vision is scarcely inappropriate to the situation of his protagonist. An orphan who was placed on the throne of Muscovy at the age of three, Ivan is surrounded by internal and external enemies. Battle sequences aside, the action takes place almost entirely in the twisting corridors of a windowless cavern, a set that makes paranoia tangible, particularly in the movie’s second part. In this, Eisenstein was able to give form to the inexpressible quality of Russian life under Stalin’s rule.
Among other things, Ivan is a masterpiece of Stalinist architecture. As historian James H. Billington observed in his interpretive chronicle of Russian culture The Icon and the Axe, “the mammoth mosaics in the Moscow subway, the unnecessary spires and fantastic frills of civic buildings, the leaden chandeliers and dark foyers of reception chambers—all send the historical imagination back to the somber world of Ivan the Terrible.” By 1941, the analogy was quasi-official. Not only did Ivan’s terror provide means to legitimize Stalin’s, the 16th-century tsar’s war against Livonia offered historical justification for Stalin’s annexation of the Baltic states. (Eisenstein’s Ivan was paralleled by Valentin Kostylev’s multiparty historical novel and the reprinting of a 1922 biography, augmented with quotations from Stalin.)
But Ivan also represents Eisenstein’s experience of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War. In June 1941, even as the filmmaker worked on the script for his projected three-part epic, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Moscow was heavily bombed that fall and most of Mosfilm evacuated beyond the Urals to Alma Ata, the capital of Khazhakstan. There, after many delays and the Battle of Stalingrad, Ivan began filming in the spring of 1943. Since electrical power was at a premium, due to the war effort, much of the shooting was done at night.
Ivan the Terrible, Part I had its premiere a few months before the fall of Berlin. The movie not only dramatized Ivan’s pledge to make Moscow the “third Rome” and ended with a sinuous procession of the Russian people through the snow begging their leader to return to them, it was a triumph that presaged a greater one—namely, the victory over the Nazis in World War II. (Still, many understood it to concern the Soviet Union’s internal politics. When the movie opened in the U.S. in 1947, James Agee compared it favorably to Shakespeare’s historical plays: “more politically knowledgeable and incomparably hotter to handle.”) Eisenstein received the Stalin prize and immediately began filming Part II, complete with an orgiastic red, black, and gold banquet sequence that was shot on Agfa color-stock captured from the Germans.
Ivan the Terrible, Part II, also known as The Boyar’s Plot, was completed in February 1946, with Eisenstein suffering a heart attack (perhaps brought on by the strain of finishing the film). If the Soviet authorities expected to see Ivan’s glorious push to the Baltic, they were rudely disappointed. Even more extreme in its stylization than the first part, Ivan’s second installment presented an unmistakable, if medieval, vision of Stalin’s rule, replete with political assassination and secret police. (No less disturbing perhaps are the campy, if not overtly homoerotic, touches that Eisenstein gave to his portrayal of Ivan’s court.) Ivan the Terrible, Part II was condemned as “erroneous” by the Central Committee and its release was delayed. Eisenstein and Cherkasov were summoned to the Kremlin for a history lesson from Stalin himself. “Ivan the Terrible was very cruel,” the Soviet dictator told them. “You can depict him as a cruel man, but you have to show why he had to be cruel.”
Eisenstein accepted Stalin’s criticism. Although he received permission to continue working, his increasingly poor health prevented him from doing so. (Retakes for Part II were never shot and Part III was abandoned after four reels, although a five-minute fragment exists.) The filmmaker died in 1948, only weeks after his 50th birthday. Unreleased and uncompromised, Part II would not have a public screening for another decade. The complete Ivan the Terrible was finally given its premiere at the 1958 Brussels Worlds Fair as evidence of the Soviet Union’s post-Stalin “thaw.” Although it then seemed the anachronistic relic of a long-gone era, Ivan would, by the late 1960s, markedly influence the two most ambitious and beleaguered movies produced that decade in the Soviet Union—Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and Serge Paradjanov’s very different Sayat Nova. Today, this unique work is recognized as the culmination of Eisenstein’s extraordinary and tragic career.
J. Hoberman is a film critic for the Village Voice. His latest book is The Red Atlantis: Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism (Temple University Press).