SYNOPSIS Part 1:
During the early part of his reign, Ivan the Terrible faces betrayal from the aristocracy and even his closest friends as he seeks to unite the Russian people.
SYNOPSIS Part 2:
As Ivan the Terrible attempts to consolidate his power by establishing a personal army, his political rivals, the Russian boyars, plot to assassinate their Tsar.
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Strange to write a review for an incomplete film, but in the case of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible we are sadly left with only the first two parts of a trilogy. A combination of poor health and Stalinist censorship made the final piece an impossibility. But what is left behind is still an unquestioned masterpiece.
Part I begins with the coronation of Ivan (Nikolai Cherkasov) as the tsar for all Russia and his marriage to Anastasia Romanovna. The other boyars, the Russian nobility, are upset with this unified rule. Immediately upon his ascension to the throne, Ivan must calm the common people who feel exploited by the boyars and simultaneously defend Russia against external enemies. After defeating the Kazans, Ivan returns home to face his domestic threat creates the Oprichnina, a secret police, to defend him from his enemies. Despite their efforts, Ivan’s ambitious aunt Efrosina Staritska is able to poison Ivan’s wife. As the boyars increasingly conspire against him, including his former friend Andrei Kurbsky, Ivan abdicates and leaves for the countryside. The common people, however, beseech him to return and rule Russia with absolute power. Part II resumes as Ivan returns to Moscow. He redistributes the land from the boyars to his loyalists. Interrupting a play in the cathedral, Ivan threatens the boyars and they in turn are determined to assassinate him. Ivan then plots to avenge his wife’s murder and eliminate the internal boyar danger, increasingly relying on the Opricnina.
Part I is one of the greatest pieces of propaganda ever created. The rise of Ivan is used as a metaphor for the rise to power of the Bolsheviks. After the Russian Revolution, it was far from clear that the Bolsheviks would become the dominant political force. In fact, they had significant disadvantages, including a lack of support outside Russia and less military experience. They relied heavily on the support of the common people, whom they claimed to represent. Even Ivan’s withdrawal from Moscow can be seen as a metaphor for the numerous occasions the Bolsheviks withdrew from democratic bodies, waiting for absolute power to be conferred by the people.
Like all propagandists Eisenstein had the difficult task of writing history to match the political goals of those in power. In their rise to power, the Bolsheviks had promised that regions would determine for themselves whether to be part of the Soviet Union. Betraying this promise, Stalin centralized absolute authority in Moscow. Eisenstein uses Ivan to assert that Russia would be unsafe without a dominant power and that Moscow’s strength is necessary for the survival against foreign enemies. The film also propagandizes in favor of Stalin seizing the Baltic States as a restoration of Russian land. The historical reality was considerably more complex.
Part II takes a darker, more operatic tone that is sharply different from Eisenstein’s previous works and certainly far from what Soviet leadership expected from him. Eisenstein had championed filmmaking by montage, an extension of his Marxist-Lenninist political beliefs. He believed that cinema should be a dialect where juxtaposed images can create emotions in the audiences. He disdained the directorial manipulation of shadow, color, and setting believing it to lack the truth of what the camera could capture. Einsenstein seemingly disavows this in Part II using as many manipulations of images as the German Expressionists. Most notably, after a film entirely in black and white, the film shockingly goes into color at a feast where Ivan puts into motion his revenge plan. As the Oprichnina dance, Ivan has a red hue, giving the distinct appearance of Satan watching his minions in Hell. The Eisenstein who directed The Battleship Potemkin would never consider such a technique.
The Soviet censors, including Stalin himself, were not pleased. While Part I was widely viewed and even received a Stalin Prize, Part II was banned in the Soviet Union until the “Khrushchev Thaw” of the Fifties. Although the film certainly depicts the boyars as schemers, Ivan is a figure of blood-thirsty paranoia. The Oprichnina, dressed in black cowls as they enter the cathedral in one scene, are obvious allusions to the secret police that so terrorized the Soviet people under Stalin’s reign. Ivan himself is isolated and friendless, a man burdened not only by power but also profound unhappiness. In saving Russia, he has lost himself.
Needless to say, Stalin would not allow that portray of his rule to be seen by his people. The film was banned, and most of Part III that had been shot was confiscated. Eisenstein, under increasing pressure, died shortly thereafter of a heart attack. Another victim of the regime he spent his life – and his art – defending.