I love discovering new things, or – if not discovering – then finally getting around to watching, reading or listening to things I should have read, watched or listened to a long time ago. I’ve known about Sergei Eisenstein’s two-part biopic of Ivan the Terrible since (rather lazily) doing an A-Level in Film Studies, and had read about it in books about the Stalin era, including a biography of the film’s composer, Prokofiev, but still hadn’t seen it until last week.
Thankfully, the film’s production company, Mosfilm, have made much of their extensive back catalogue (which, incidentally, includes some of the greatest films ever made) available on YouTube, and in as high a def as you can ask for from a free online streaming service, including both parts of Ivan the Terrible.
Telling the story of Russia’s most tyrannical Tsar, and made under the watchful, oppressive gaze of its most ruthless dictator, Eisenstein’s film followed on from his earlier biopic of another major character from Russian history, Alexander Nevsky. That film was made after a brief period of state-enforced inactivity; Eisenstein – much like Shostakovich, Akhmatova and countless others – having gotten himself into a spot of bother with the authorities. His last major films before Nevsky had been produced during the silent era, and watching both Nevsky and Ivan (which were made in late 1930s and ’40s), you realise that Eisenstein still wasn’t quite comfortable working in sound. Happy to let Prokofiev’s incredible music do all the talking, he’s far more interested in mise-en-scene (see? that A-Level didn’t go entirely to waste) and in the physicality of his performers; their movements and facial expressions, than in dialogue.
While many American and European filmmakers were moving towards a grittier, more naturalistic feel (Ivan was made only 4 years before Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves and 10 years before Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront), Eisenstein’s films are still heavily stylised, nowhere more so than in the performances. Taking the title roles in both Nevsky and Ivan, Nikolai Chersakov never knowingly underplays a scene; his acting verges on a strange kind of ballet. As Ivan he tilts his head dramatically, sticking out his beard – which grows longer as the films progress through Ivan’s life – so that it comes to resemble the beak of some malevolent raven.
Elsewhere, the supporting cast are similarly expressionistic, whether it’s Mikhail Nazvanov’s Kurbsky squinting covetously at Tsarina Anastasia or Ivan’s wicked aunt Efrosinia (Serafima Birman) skulking in the shadows as she plots her next Machiavellian move.
As you might expect from the man who gave us Battleship Potemkin’s “Odessa Steps” sequence, the film is ravishing to look at – every single shot is good enough to frame and hang on your wall – but this isn’t at the expense of character or emotion. While the first film moves through Ivan’s early career at a fair old gallop, Part 2 allows the characters some room to breathe, and an extended flashback to Ivan’s childhood serves much the same purpose as the Robert DeNiro sequences in Godfather Part II, helping us to understand the exact circumstances that could forge a tyrant in the first place.
It was Part 2 of the film that once again got Eisenstein in hot water with the Powers That Be. While the first half, which details Ivan’s military conquests (and even tries turning the absolute monarch into a collectivist hero), the second part doesn’t shy away from showing his descent into megalomania. All this was a little near the knuckle for Stalin, and the parallels between Ivan’s terribleness and Stalin’s Terror are further accentuated by the film’s only colour sequence, which is bathed in a hellish red glow from beginning to end.
Having incurred the wrath of Stalin and his censors, the second film – which was completed in 1944 – wouldn’t be released until 1958, by which time both Eisenstein and Stalin were dead.When Part 2’s release was cancelled, plans for a third, concluding episode were shelved, but while the film remains essentially unfinished the diabolical climax to the two-volume version still provides a satisfying enough ending.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you’re not particularly au fait with Russian history. If you love films, and want to see filmmaking at its most stylish and its most engrossing, I’d recommend you check out Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible.