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
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
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
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
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.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick
Overall Rating: (4)
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