Monday, January 10, 2011
Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II
It's easy to appreciate Sergei's Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. The film revolutionized editing and provided propaganda so convincing that even Joseph Goebbels liked and admired it. And even then its politics are hardly reprehensible; in 1925 Lenin had just died and Stalin hadn't had the time to start killing dissidents left and right, so there was nothing wrong with showing some malnourished workers rising up against a repressive Tsarist regime. Plus no one has a difficult time remembering what makes the film great--all you have to do is visualize the Odessa steps sequence.
The same can not be said for Ivan the Terrible. For one, there are no baby carriages falling down stairs. But mainly, the movie was made in 1944 (part II was made in 46 but only released 12 years later and Eisenstein died before he could make part III), meaning Citizen Kane had already been unleashed by the gods of cinema, and Russia's film industry, instead of being a cutting edge innovative force, was years behind. Heavy symbolism and dialectic montage didn't have nearly the effect they once did, and Stalin, with his obsessive authority over what could and couldn't get made, made William Hayes of the "Hayes" (or Motion Picture Production) Code look like Ray Bradbury.
Ivan the Terrible, therefore, wasn't just made in the interest of shedding light on the rule of a historical figure. Stalin may have opposed the ruling class in the Bolshevik Revolution, but he held a great affinity for Tsar Ivan "Grozniy", whose name has also been translated as Ivan the Awesome and Ivan the Awful ("awe inspiring" seems to be a more appropriate and less confusing term). Ivan turned Russia into an empire by expanding it and centralizing it's rule under his autocratic leadership (while reducing the authority of the "boyar" noblemen), and he established the idea of a guard as a means of political control. It's no wonder Stalin wanted Eisenstein to glorify the man.
So glorify he does. During Ivan's coronation, Eisenstein keeps cutting to religious iconography and ceremonial attire. When Ivan's subjects raise their goblets to him, the cups form an ascending V in perfect symmetry. When Ivan urges his men to start an attack on the city of Kazan, he repeatedly bellows "A Kazan", in a way that sounds uncannily like Oprah announcing to her guests that she's taking them to Australia. Almost every shot is composed to enhance the Tsar's position as an imposing and commanding figure, and the few that aren't are still composed to say things very loudly. When Eisenstein isn't overtly concerned with making his images as powerful as possible, he makes them flamboyant, as in a raucous dance sequence at one of Ivan's banquets that's inexplicably the only scene in color in the entire 3+ hours of movie. That one scene is quite lively, but unfortunately most of the movie is a little too static; the focus on theatricality diminishes the film's resonance.
That said, Ivan is far from terrible. Stalin eventually decided that he wasn't so fond of his association with the Ivan portrayed in part II, and banned the film (which in itself gives the movie cultural and historical interest). Everything that Stalin disliked is what makes the film great; Ivan is shown as ruthless, conflicted, and pained--perhaps too close to Stalin himself for him to admit. And Eisenstein is indeed able to create his distinctive moments of formidable power, although the glorification is most successful near the end when Ivan has become slightly more humanized. Finally Nickolay Cherkasof should be applauded for his embodiment of Ivan. He stubbornly resists being humanized by somehow conveying superhuman authority and importance even when he's at his weakest. Maybe it's just that badass beard...