IVAN THE TERRIBLE (1944)

  • Director: Sergei Eisenstein
  • Writer: Sergei Eisenstein
  • Starring: Nikolay Cherkasov, Serafima Birman, Pavel Kadochnikov, Mikhail Zharov, Amvrosy Buchma, Mikhail Kuznetsov, Lyudmila Tselikovskaya, and Mikhail Nazvanov
  • Accolades: 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#39)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max or The Criterion Channel, buy or rent with Apple TV

I think it takes a certain kind of viewer to enjoy Sergei Eisenstein’s great late-in-life work, Ivan the Terrible, to pretty much any degree. My favorite thing anyone has written about it comes from Roger Ebert, who said that it was “one of those works that has proceeded directly to the status of Great Movie without going through the intermediate stage of being a good movie.” Its sets are ginormous, its running time ponderous, its acting style generally somewhere between “broad” and “declamatory.” It is also basically nonsensical, I would have had no idea what happened without accompanying descriptions on Wikipedia and the Criterion website. Not to mention that the entire reason the movie was made is because Josef Stalin wanted it to be, which is hardly a ringing endorsement.

In fact, what we have of Ivan the Terrible today is actually two parts of what was supposed to be a three part movie. Filming took place at the height of World War II, primarily at studios in Alma Ata, Kazakhstan (modern day Almaty), where several leading Soviet filmmakers had been evacuated during the war. Perhaps chief among these was Sergei Eisenstein, whose Battleship Potemkin really put Soviet filmmaking on the international map. With Stalin’s support, he was given essentially unlimited resources, even in wartime. Apparently Stalin idolized Ivan the Terrible, which is so on the nose it sounds like a joke.

Stalin liked what he saw at first, as Part I mostly centers around Ivan’s victories in various battles, and Part I was released as scheduled in 1944. Part II was set to be released two years later, but when Stalin saw it he hated it, as we watch Ivan get more, well, Terrible, and more paranoid to boot. There is literally a scene where he looks at the camera and says “I will be what you say I am. I will be… terrible.” If he had sunglasses, he would take them off at that point. Anyway, Stalin refused to let Eisenstein release the second part, and filming was halted before Part III could be completed. Eisenstein then died shortly thereafter, in 1948, leaving this to be his final work. Part II would eventually be released in 1958, by which time Stalin was dead, too, and his successors had little interest in propping up his myth at their own expense.

But all of this is ancillary to the actual content of this movie, which I feel the need to emphasize is not your standard historical epic. When I talked about La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, I said that basically no other movie could be compared to it. That’s definitely true, but I am also 100% certain that Eisenstein saw that movie before making this one. One similarity between the two is these weird close-ups of the character’s faces from unconventional angles, in such a way that you aren’t getting a good sense of what the various characters’ spatial relationships are on the screen. Another similarity is the way that all the sets are very clearly built to have these expressionistic, weird dimensions. Ivan’s throne room is enormous, yet to go into it the characters have to go through this tiny door where they have to drastically hunch over. No movie has ever been more obsessed with both tiny doors and very pointy beards. But honestly, those sets are really spectacular. Nearly every scene has these giant faces all over the walls, looming over the characters. It’s totally unique in that way.

One other thing I feel like I should mention because I personally was totally blindsided is that, multiple hours into this movie, it’s suddenly in color for the first time. There is no “diagetic” reason why it would be, there is no warning, and Wikipedia says it’s to “emphasize the importance of events.” I mean, is it? Apparently those ten minutes or so were the first movie in the Soviet Union to be shot in color. They also include what’s basically a very weird musical number involving a lot of Russian dancing. I felt like I was going insane.

In sum, though, I think I did enjoy the movie on an intellectual level. It just looks so different from anything is great, and I am a sucker for random medieval machinations. When we get a scene in the court of “Livonia,” it basically looks like a giant chess board. The battle scenes are spectacular because you know that all these people are actually there and we’re in the middle of World War II and it’s nuts. I think this is another movie that Peter Jackson may have seen before making Lord of the Rings, because it’s got a whole plot about blowing up the walls of a fortress from underneath with explosives, lots of shots of a bazillion arrows flying through the air at once, and these big, ornate cannons carved into like lion faces. So that was interesting, too.

I also think this is a movie that probably plays better in retrospect where it can exist sort of out of its time, because I think it would have been seen as crazy anachronistic in 1944. In terms of acting and mannerisms, the big influences here seem to be various sub-genres of silent movies, and Eisenstein was essentially a holdover from silent movies, but this movie out the same year as Going My Way. Yes, the context was different, but the enormous acting choices in this movie are completely bizarre in context. In retrospect, you can look at this as “oh, it’s from a long time ago, it’s fine,” but I don’t think anyone in the 1940s would have had any idea what to do with this movie.

So now we’re in this situation where there’s this enormous and unique movie from a director that is considered an all-time master, but it’s also super weird and not really finished and also makes no sense for long stretches. So now Ivan the Terrible is listed in both of the books 1,001 Movies to See Before You Die and The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (and How They Got That Way). I am glad I watched it, but it’s not just not something I’d recommend for everyone, I’m not sure it’s something I’d recommend to literally anyone I can think of. Even if are one of the people (and I would include myself in their number) who thinks “Medieval Historical Epic in Russian, sign me up!,” I think you should know that this is a super weird version of that movie.

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