Ivan the Terrible Part One (1945)

(a.k.a. Ivan Grozny)

D: Sergei Eisenstein
S: Nikolay Cherkasov, Ludmila Tselikovskaya, Seragima Birman.

The first part of a never completed trilogy, Ivan the Terrible Part One represents one half of the mature masterwork of Sergei Eisenstein. Its immediate sequel, The Boyars' Plot, was completed in 1946, but not released until 1958, after the death of Josef Stalin, on whose authority it was initially banned. Eisenstein's own death from a heart attack in 1948 prevented the trilogy's completion.

Ivan Grozny is a mammoth achievement; a significant cinematic meditation on Russian political history which also refigures the conventions of literary and theatrical representation. Though the breadth of Eisenstein's vision only becomes clear when viewed in conjunction with Part Two, Ivan the Terrible Part One is still a masterpiece and it raises important political and aesthetic questions.

The film is based on the life of Czar Ivan IV, the 16th Century ruler whose ruthlessness with his political enemies both at home and abroad earned him the nickname 'the terrible'. But it is not 'pure' history; it is an artistic speculation on the personal, psychological, and emotional cost of power.

In the 1920s, Ivan had been the subject of a number of biographies and fictional treatments which had appealed to Stalin. These portrayed him as a great leader who had held out against insurgents and rebels and unified Feudal Russia. When Eisenstein began work on the project, it was with Stalin's approval.

Eisenstein was not content to follow the conventions of what was termed "Socialist Realism" (simplistic, jingoistic, patriotic dramas which appealed to the masses and did not tax the intellect as early Soviet films had). Instead he delved into the historical period and adopted deliberately excessive, stylised decoration and formalised, Shakespearian dialogue which gave the story aesthetic depth, epic scale, and classical tragedy.

Under the influence of Greek, English, and Japanese theatre, Eisenstein also pushed the performances of his actors to the limits of acceptable representation. In the role of Ivan, Nikolay Cherkasov is a powerful physical presence. His elaborate costume, torturously detailed gestures and movements, and his carefully designed make up move his portrayal of Ivan from the realms of biography to those of experimentation. Filmed in conjunction with and contrast to the sets and props, the actor becomes an element of visual composition used to further explore the cinescape.

Beginning with the Coronation scene, the film never ceases to employ the more advanced forms of montage to examine the relationships between different individuals and political allegiances in Ivan's court. A series of cross-cut images of the faces of suspicious or envious courtiers clearly defines the lines along which confrontations will occur throughout the film. Its concern with what seems excess and with rituals of all kinds reveals a deep appreciation of the more subtle rituals of betrayal and loyalty which surround the new-crowned Tsar as well as the cultural and ideological forces behind them.

In Part One Eisenstein is careful to show Ivan in a sympathetic light. While there is evident inner darkness and even doubt, his responses to the challenges of rule are decisive and apparently motivated by a desire to bring about Russian unity. The film's climax revolves around his deferral of his authority to the people themselves, living in self-imposed exile until they ask him to assume absolute power. Never was the paradox of communist dictatorship so elegantly propagandised.

Yet there is a cost to this power, and Part One details the beginning of Ivan's isolation from those around him. The demands of his position eventually overwhelm his family. His Boyar Aunt conspires to murder him and place her dimwitted son on the throne. The first of his seven wives dies in his place. He eventually establishes the oprichnina, an elite, fanatical personal guard who further cut him off from the people. Eisenstein subtly details the physical and psychological claustrophobia of the situation and explores the fundamental nature of Russian politics.

It was only with the advance screenings of Part Two that the authorities began to realise just how contemporary his vision was. Ivan Grozny was intended to explore and question the basis of Russian political attitudes, not merely enshrine them. Detailing the largely triumphalist story of a historically significant person, Part One played well enough within the parameters of "Socialist Realism" to be very successful in 1945 (and won the Stalin Prize for artistic achievement in 1946). But though Eisenstein was a committed socialist, he had suffered enough under Stalin's rule to appreciate that a simplistic approach to history breeds dangerous naivete. The Boyars' Plot expanded upon such themes and broadened its portrayal of Ivan. It immediately fell victim to Stalin's own influence and was banned.

Note: The Region 2 DVD comes with a feeble historical overview of the events.
Note: The Criterion Collection DVD comes in a boxed set with Part II and Alexander Nevsky, and features the usual array of impressive Criterion features.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.