Original release: December 30th, 1944
Running time: 181 minutes
Country of origin: Soviet Union
Original language: Russian
Writer, director and producer: Sergei Eisenstein
Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Cast: Nikolai Cherkassov, Serafima Birman, Ludmila Tselikovskaya
Joan Neuberger, an Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin, in her book Ivan the Terrible raises some interesting questions with regards to this unfinished masterpiece. While today it is largely viewed as an art film from an era long dissolved Neuberger asks:
Ivan Vasilyevich was born on August 25th 1530 in Kolomenskoye, near Moscow. He reigned from 1533 after the death of his father and was crowned tsar on January 16th 1547 when he was 16 years old. His reign lasted until his death in 1584. In his lifetime he was responsible for the conquest of the Khanates of Kazan, Astrakhan, and Siberia which helped to transform Russia into a multiethnic state forming an empire that covered almost one billion acres but before any of that happened, Ivan knew he had to find a way to deal with the loathsome boyars.
After suffering in silence for much of his life, Ivan, at the age of 13 would finally strike back on December 29th, 1543. He summoned Prince Andrei Shuisky to his room where he merely pointed his finger at him and at once Ivan, with this single gesture, had his guards arrest him, kill him and throw is body to the dogs outside.
Eisenstein’s film is one that is rich in symbology, each scene evokes a feeling as if contemplating a work of art in the National Gallery, and indeed, each scene is a work of art. He’s paid very specific attention to how each frame should make us feel while at the same time telling us a story, but it had to do more than that as Neuberger explains:
As propaganda pieces go, there’s no denying that Ivan the Terrible is quite simply one of the most stunning examples of it, along with Leni Riefenstahl’s commissioned work for Adolf Hitler between 1933 and 1938. Neuberger notes that while we may watch Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) to see examples of early experimentation in cinema, it’s Ivan the Terrible we watch to experience a moment in the history of Soviet art and she’s absolutely right.
Amidst its aesthetic appeal and in spite of its Stalinist propaganda there’s something else to found here too. Neuberger argues:
As a product of the historical context within which it was made, Ivan the Terrible seeks to engage the viewer in political and historical debate relating to Eisenstein’s own time but we can never fully experience his debate or engage in it because the film suffered censorship preventing its release for a number of years and then the butchering by the cuts made to it. The original screenplay does exist, along with many of his notes which is what Neuberger has used in her research to shed light on what Eisenstein hoped to achieve.
Neuberger presents her research in a clear and compelling way and it’s hard to argue with it. In demonstrating the many ways with which we can view this mesmerising film Eisenstein has left for us, what she has also done is make her research an essential must-read for anyone who wishes to learn more not only about this film, but its director and the era in which he lived.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
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