Tag Archives: Russia

‘Ivan the Terrible’ (1944)

29 Sep

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.

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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.

Why Are We Cool With Lenin?

30 Aug

The other day I met up with my friend and colleague Scott Handcock for lunch at the Cardiff branch of Cosy Club. For the uninitiated, Cosy Club is a vaguely hipsterish chain of restaurants describing themselves as “gents club meets village hall meets cricket club”. If the food wasn’t so nice, it’s the kind of place that would make me break out in hives. Anyway… It was only as we were leaving that I noticed, fixed to the wall, a giant wooden bas relief of Lenin.

Highlighted here (in a pic taken from Cosy Club's website) by the blue arrow.

Highlighted here (in a pic taken from Cosy Club’s website) by the blue arrow.

And this got me thinking. Why are we OK with Lenin? After all, you wouldn’t expect to see images of, say, Hitler or Mussolini taking pride of place in a Harvester. It reminded me of the episode of Peep Show in which Sophie (Olivia Coleman) takes Mark (David Mitchell) shopping for clothes, and he sees a t-shirt emblazoned with the image of Mao Tse Tung. 

 

Now, while this is just a small, throwaway moment from a sitcom, like the great big Lenin profile in Cosy Club it points to the very weird inconsistency we have with despots. Media outlets in the UK and US were apoplectic at the news that a weird craze for all things Hitler-related was sweeping across Thailand, with the toothbrush-moustached mass murderer himself adorning t-shirts and posters, and that’s understandable. Hitler is not a pop culture icon. 

But neither is Lenin. 

In Koba the Dread, his book about Stalin, Martin Amis asks (and without a copy to hand, I’m paraphrasing) why we laugh so much more easily at Stalin et al than at Hitler, why we take the latter more seriously than the former. Of course, as is often the case with Amis, he’s not quite right. From Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator to both versions of The Producers, we’ve always laughed at Hitler, but at the same time we have still treated his crimes with greater seriousness than we have atrocities committed in the USSR – making the Holocaust a staple of the history syllabus, but leaving many students ignorant of Stalin’s purges or the Holodomor.

As Mark says in Peep Show, it’s not a competition, but while it’s true that the industrialised nature of the Holocaust – not to mention its incomprehensibly short time span – make it stand out against all horrors of the 20th Century, the sheer numbers when it comes to those killed by the Soviets are truly staggering, with even the most conservative estimates offering a death toll of 15 million for the Stalin era alone. 

When discussing the (most likely exaggerated) Thai “Hitler craze”, many people put it down to historical ignorance, rather than anything ideological (though, of course, the two may overlap), but if this is true of Thai culture, it is also true of ours. When Cosy Club bought that bas relief of Lenin, did the purchaser have any idea who he was? If they did, perhaps they thought, “Well… It’s only Lenin. I mean… Lenin didn’t do any harm, now did he? All the bad stuff came with Stalin.”

Which – excuse my language – is just bollocks.

Terror and mass murder were a part of communism from the very start, long before Stalin got his claws into it. In his excellent book Black Mass, the writer and philosopher John Gray reminds us that from their earliest speeches, Marx and Engels knew that terror would be an essential part of any revolution. Here they are in an 1850 speech to the London Communist League: 

Above all, during and after the struggle the workers… must oppose bourgeois attempts at pacification and force the democrats to carry out their terroristic phases… Far from opposing so-called excesses – instances of popular vengeance against hated individuals etc – the workers’ party must not only tolerate these actions but give them direction.

 

Nice guys.

Nice guys.

 

That culture of violence and violent retribution didn’t skip a couple of generations after the Russian Revolution; it was there from the start. Even if we’re to ignore the shooting of the Romanovs, the years 1917-1924 (Lenin’s tenure) saw more people interned and executed by the Soviet regime than were killed in the preceding century of Emperors. Lenin’s lovely, cuddly, second-in-command Trotsky, so beloved by artists and writers around the globe during his later exile, and mourned in many quarters as a martyr of the one true faith, played an integral role in establishing the Gulags in which over a million people died of torture, execution, starvation and disease.

Even if one was to argue that it’s a time thing, that no-one would complain about a picture of Napoleon or Genghis Khan, and that Lenin’s crimes are almost a century old while survivors of Hitler’s death camps are still with us, that still doesn’t wash, because the knock-on effects of the Soviet experiment are still being felt, nowhere more so than along the border of Russia and Ukraine. 

So my question remains… Why are we cool with Lenin?

 

References

  • Gulag: A history – Anne Applebaum
  • The Great Terror – Robert Conquest
  • Black Mass: Apocalyptic religion and the death of Utopia – John Gray