IVAN THE TERRIBLE, PART ONE (Sergei M. Eisenstein, 1944)

The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis

Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan Groznyy I, about the sixteenth-century Russian Tsar, owes some of its grand style to Josef von Sternberg’s Scarlet Empress (1934), about Catherine II. Yet a far more instructive influence comes from Eisenstein’s favorite American film, John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), in which the future president, becoming infatuated with the crowd’s infatuation with him, dons his hat inside a court room—a slip into arrogance and populist demagoguery. When in Eisenstein’s film Moscow’s archduke declares himself Tsar of all Russia, the camera behind him records this ascension in a Fordian gesture: Ivan’s lowering the ceremonial cap onto his own head. Assumption of power; the presumption of power.
     The palace, populated by plotting nobles (Boyars), is full of cavernous dark hollows and looming human shadows by torchlight; during Ivan’s self-anointment, a shaft of light could be coming from the present, suggesting a unification of times as well as of Russian lands. The battle against the Tartars in Kazan (for access to the Azov Sea) suggests Stalin’s war against the Nazis. A heart-piercing passage: the long procession of Ivan’s warriors as they go off to fight, each in turn dropping a coin into a plate. Ivan explains that the coins remaining unclaimed following the campaign will provide the number of their fallen. The heap of coins symbolizes the high price that wars exact.
     Enlivened by sometimes thunderous movement through the frames, the static compositions make thrilling each rare camera movement. Editing, particularly the inserted, often angled closeups, expressionistically destabilize the static compositions and the cumulative impression they convey. The poisoning of Tsarina Anastasia, Ivan’s own near-fatal illness and recovery, his self-exile and triumphant return on the wings of public adoration: all this underscores the fairy-tale nature of the first part of Eisenstein’s planned trilogy.

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