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Ivan The Terrible

Ivan The Terrible

By Patrick Samuel • November 22nd, 2011
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Artificial Eye

Release date: November 21st, 2011
Certificate (UK): PG
Running time: 181 minutes

Year of production: 1946

Country of origin: Soviet Union
Original language: Russian with English subtitles

Writer, director and producer: Sergei Eisenstein
Composer: Sergei Prokofiev

Cast: Nikolai Cherkassov, Serafima Birman, Ludmila Tselikovskaya, Eric Pyriev, Mikhail Nazvanov, Andrei Abrikosov, Mikhail Zharov, Pavel Kodochnikov, Amvrosi Buchma, Mikhail Kuznetsov, Maxsim Mikhajlov

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:

“What sort of film did Eisenstein want us to see and how was it shaped by the world within which it was made? What does the film tell us about Eisenstein, the Soviet Union, and the practice of filmmaking there in the 1940′s? And what does Ivan the Terrible still have to say to us?”

Ivan the Terrible

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.

Ivan the Terrible

“Over the next few days Ivan had all of Andrei’s close associates arrested and banished. Caught off-guard by his sudden boldness, the boyars now stood in mortal terror of this youth, the future Ivan the Terrible, who planned and waited five years to execute this one swift and bold act that would secure his power for decades to come.” ~ The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

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:

Ivan the Terrible

“Ivan the Terrible is a strange, complex and haunting film. Commissioned personally by Stalin in 1941, the project placed Eisenstein in the paradoxical situation of having to glorify Stalinist tyranny in the image of Ivan without sacrificing his own artistic and political integrity – or his life.”

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.

Ivan the Terrible

Amidst its aesthetic appeal and in spite of its Stalinist propaganda there’s something else to found here too. Neuberger argues:

“But a careful viewing of the film, supported by Eisenstein’s own production notes and memoirs of people involved in the shoot, show that he was able to use the political and aesthetic conventions of Stalinist socialist Realism to challenge the values and practices they enforced. The resulting film is the work of a great artist navigating the treacherous waters of Stalinist cultural politics, though with mixed results.”

Ivan the Terrible

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.

Ivan the Terrible

“The film contains the director’s current thinking about the origins of personality and individual psychology, the process of artistic creativity and spectatorship, and the ways cinema might enable transcendence, or what he called ekstasis (ecstasy). Dense networks of repeated and inverted images, imitations of animation, strange and exaggerated gestures, masks and disguises, cross-dressing and character substitutions work together (or against each other) to form a shifting, layered series of episodes that comment on all of these subjects as the same. Understanding this unusual structure and distinguishing the various conceptual strands it contains is another of the puzzles Ivan the Terrible presents.”

  • Green, R The 48 Laws of Power (2003), Profile Books
  • Neuberger, J Ivan the Terrible (2003), I.B.Tauris

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.

Patrick Samuel

Patrick Samuel

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.

You can find his music on Soundcloud .

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