Sun, 21 Oct 2018

Ivan the Terrible Part I / Part II

Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Screenplay: Sergei Eisenstein
Stars: Nikolai Cherkassov (Tsar Ivan IV), Serafima Birma (Efrosinia Staritskaya), Pavel Kadochnikov (Vladimir Andreyevich Staritsky), Mikhail Zharov (Malyuta Skuratov), Andrei Abrikosov (Fyodor Kolychev), Alexander Mgebrov (Archbishop Pimen), Ludmila Tselikovskaya (Anastasia)
MPAA Rating:NR
Year of Release: 1945
Country: Soviet Union

Ivan the Terrible Part II
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Screenplay: Sergei Eisenstein
Stars: Nikolai Cherkassov (Tsar Ivan IV), Serafima Birma (Efrosinia Staritskaya), Pavel Kadochnikov (Vladimir Andreyevich Staritsky), Mikhail Zharov (Malyuta Skuratov), Andrei Abrikosov (Fyodor Kolychev), Alexander Mgebrov (Archbishop Pimen), Nikolai Nazvanov (Prince Andrei Kurbsky)
MPAA Rating:NR
Year of Release: 1946
Country: Soviet Union
Ivan the Terrible Poster
Ivan the Terrible

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that we "explain the past only by what is most powerful in the present." The same is also true in reverse, that we explain the present only by what is most powerful in the past, which is the case of Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, an epic cinematic portrait of Tsar Ivan IV, who was the first ruler to unite the various Russian states and principalities in the 16th century.

Ivan the Terrible was first proposed by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who wanted to recuperate the tsar as a great leader and one of his historical forerunners. Ivan IV had been responsible for some important reforms in Russia during his reign, but he was known primarily as a cruel dictator who devolved into paranoia, violence, and insanity. Many still find it odd that Stalin would chose Ivan IV for this project, but it makes sense in that they are both men cut from the same mold, and Stalin probably assumed that, if Ivan's reputation could be recuperated, his own tyranny would be more accepted (the final years of his rule, from 1945 to 1953, when Ivan the Terrible was made, were some of Stalin's most excessive).

Eisenstein, who had fallen out of favor with Stalin's regime in the 1930s but had re-established himself with the nationalistic masterpiece Alexander Nevsky in 1938, accepted the project with vigor and enthusiasm. Yet, he did not produce the ideological-historical revisionism that Stalin was looking for. Rather than a recuperation of Ivan the Terrible, Eisenstein produced a brilliant cinematic work that was a thinly veiled portrait of not only Stalinism at its worst, but also the failed Bolshevik Revolution of which Eisenstein had been a part. Ivan the Terrible is a complex study of the nuances of power, how it functions within tyranny, and the process by which it changes hands.

Ivan the Terrible Part I was released in 1945, and Stalin was so pleased with it, that he bestowed on it the Stalin Award, the highest honor it could receive. The critique of Stalinism was too apparent in Ivan the Terrible Part II, however, and Stalin had it banned (it was never shown publicly until 1958). Eisenstein had written a script and shot about four reels of Ivan the Terrible Part III, which would have completed the trilogy, but persistent health problems and Stalin's political censorship conspired to ensure that it would never be completed. Ivan the Terrible Part II would be his final film.

Ivan the Terrible Part I begins in 1547 with Ivan (Nikolai Cherkassov, who also played the lead in Alexander Nevsky) being crowned tsar of Russia in a lavish ceremony. His coronation is staunchly opposed by the boyars, wealthy families of noble lineage who do not want their power and wealthy minimized by an all-powerful ruler. As Ivan the Terrible Part I shows, however, opposition and treachery do not reside only in obvious enemies. In somewhat Shakespearean fashion, Ivan will fall victim to his own best friends and most trusted advisors, which adds to the sense of paranoia and distrust that pervades the second half of his rule.

What makes Ivan the Terrible Part I tragic is that Ivan appears to have good intentions at the beginning, when he is a young man still full of hope and potential. Yet, as the axiom goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Ivan is no different. As the film progresses, he becomes more and tyrannical in his hunger for power and his desire to ensure the realization of the abstract "Great Russian State," which he refers to as "the third Rome." Accordingly, his physical portrayal becomes more and more grotesque. Once a handsome young man, by the end of the film he is a caricature of malevolence, thin and pointed at all ends, from his hawk nose to his long, sharp beard. Eisenstein emphasizes his separation from humanity by constantly focusing on his shadow, which is cast in disproportionate excess against the walls around him, seeming to literally swallow up all who come into his presence.

Despite the obvious critique of the hunger for absolute power inherent in Ivan the Terrible Part I, it is not hard to see why Stalin would have viewed it so approvingly. One can almost imagine him nodding his head in agreement when Ivan's doomed wife, Anastasia (Ludmila Tselikovskaya), declares to the boyars, "Once you have rejected individual authority, no matter how strong, courageous, intelligent you may be, your government will be directionless." A strong argument for a dictator, no doubt, and that is likely as deep as Stalin was willing to read, which rendered him unable to see Eisenstein's deeper meanings.

This is perhaps most telling at the end of the film, when the people of Russia line up to beg Ivan to return to power in Moscow. On a purely narrative level, this appears to reassert the need for a dictator to rule the state and to justify all of Ivan's excesses in pursuit of working for, as he puts it, "the future of the Great Russian State." Yet, look at how Eisenstein frames these scenes, with Ivan in the extreme foreground and the faceless people relegated to the far background, where they are dominated by Ivan's presence. At one point, Eisenstein gives us an extreme close-up of Ivan in profile looking downward, his sharp face and long beard forming a frame of domination within which the background masses are trapped.

In Ivan the Terrible Part II, which was filmed at the same time as Part I and edited a month later, much of the plot revolves around a conspiracy by the boyars to assassinate Ivan (the film is also known as The Boyars' Plot). Stalin immediately banned the film upon seeing it because he felt it cut a little too close to the bone, especially in its focus on the oprichniki, Ivan's personal bodyguards who were obviously analogous to the secret police Stalin used in the late 1930s to purge the Soviet Union of all who doubted him. Part II is even more paranoid than Part I, with its swirling conspiracies, plots, and betrayals.

The film also includes a crucial flashback sequence that was originally intended to be the opening part of Ivan the Terrible Part I, but was cut because Stalin demanded it. This flashback shows Ivan as a young boy witnessing the death of his mother by poisoning at the hand of boyars, his being crowned Duke of Moscow, and the first time he uses the force of violence to assert his authority. This sequence is of absolute importance because it establishes Ivan's psychological framework and why his hatred of the boyars is so intense. The look on young Ivan's face after he orders his first execution is absolutely chilling in the way it depicts the boy realizing what he is capable of.

Although Ivan sinks deeper into madness and paranoia in Part II, the childhood flashback gives him a more humane dimension and underscores Eisenstein's assertion that Ivan is not evil, as many have tried to read him. Rather, he is a flawed man whose good intentions ran aground on his own desire for grandiosity.

Ivan the Terrible Part I and Part II: Eisenstein: The Sound Years Three-Disc Box Set
Ivan the Terrible Part I and Part II are available as part of the Criterion Collection's three-disc DVD box set, Eisenstein: The Sound Years, which also includes Ivan the Terrible Part One and Ivan the Terrible Part Two.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AnamorphicNo
Audio Dolby 1.0 Monaural
LanguagesRussian
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements The History of Ivan the Terrible: multimedia essay by Joan Neuberger
Eisenstein's Visual Vocabulary: multimedia essay by Yuri Tsivian
Rare footage of Eisenstein, makeup and costume tests, and deleted scenes
Drawings and production stills from Ivan the Terrible Part I
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision
SRP$79.95 (3-Disc Box Set)

VIDEO
Both Ivan the Terrible Part I and Ivan the Terrible Part II were transferred in high-definition from newly struck 35-mm composite fine-grain masters with very good results. Both films have clear, sharp images that make the detailed sets and costumes really stand out. There is some obvious damage from time to time in the form of white specks, but there is almost no major damage like tears or stains (in the opening scenes of Part II, however, there are a series of notable horizontal scratches). The color segment of Part II has been transferred as Eisenstein originally filmed it, heavy on extreme, saturated colors. These segments were shot on Agfa color stock, a tripack color stock similar to Eastman, which was taken from the Germans during World War II. Eisenstein apparently used colored lights to emphasize red, which dominates throughout. Flesh tones do not look natural at all, but that is the intended look and should not be construed as an error in the transfer.

AUDIO
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack on both films serves them well. Although hardly impressive, these soundtracks are mostly free of any distracting artifacts or hissing. The sound equipment used at the time was subpar, thus the beautiful score by Sergei Prokofiev does not achieve the full resonance it deserves.

SUPPLEMENTS
Although not as feature-packed as the Alexander Nevsky disc in the Eisenstein: The Sound Years Criterion Collection box set with which they are included, the two Ivan the Terrible discs do boast a nice set of supplements.

The disc for Part I features a multimedia essay on the history of Ivan the Terrible by Joan Neuberger, director of the Center for Soviet Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. The essay is really only partially a history of the two productions, as Neuberger spends a great deal of time engaging in an ideological analysis of the films and how they fared in the political climate of the Stalinist regime. Neuberger's analysis is perceptive and engaging, especially in her argument that Ivan the Terrible is not just about the Stalinist dictatorship, but also about why the Bolshevik Revolution was doomed from the start, a reading that has greatly enhanced my own appreciation of these films.

This disc also contains a section of rare footage of Eisenstein at work, makeup and costume tests, and deleted scenes, all of which is narrated in Russian (with optional English subtitles) by Naum Kleiman, curator of Moscow's Eisenstein Museum. This section includes a longer version of the childhood flashback sequence in Part II as it would have been edited had it remained at the beginning of Part I. However, the real gem here is the inclusion of the only surviving five-minute segment of the never-completed Ivan the Terrible Part III.

The second disc includes another multimedia essay, this one on Eisenstein's visual vocabulary by Yuri Tsivian, a professor of art history at the University of Chicago. Using numerous examples from the film as well as writings and sketches by Eisenstein, Tsivian gives a good overview of the complex and sometimes purposefully contradictory ways in which Eisenstein used imagery, including his methods of having scenes mirror each other, his use of recurrent motifs, and his employment of the tropes of psychoanalysis. This is a fascinating essay that makes you look at these films in a whole new light.

Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick



Overall Rating: (4)

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