Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Masterpiece Test: Ivan the Terrible

Year of Release  Part One:  1944 
Part Two:  completed in 1946, but suppressed until 1958
Country  Soviet Union
Length  Part One:  99 min.
Part Two:  86 min.
Director  Sergei Eisenstein
Screenwriter  Sergei Eisenstein
Editor  Sergei Eisenstein
Cinematographer  Andrei Moskvin and Eduard Tisse
Set Designer  Iosif Shpinel
Original Score  Sergei Prokofiev
Cast  Nikolai Cherkasov, Serafima Birman, Mikhail Nazvanov, Mikhail Kuznetzov

Beauty  Sergei Eisenstein is more well known for his innovative editing techniques than his brilliant cinematographic eye, yet his final film is one of the most visually grand works in all of cinema.  Ivan the Terrible is as much about chiaroscuro, depth of focus, overwhelming frescos, nightmarishly claustrophobic corridors, lavish costumes, rhyming shots, and dynamic lighting as it is about the titular historical figure.  The two-part epic is a tour de force not only for Eisenstein, but also for cinematographers Andrei Moskvin and Eduard Tisse and set designer Iosif Shpinel, all of whom get a lot of mileage out of the unique looks of the cast members, each chosen as much for their look as for their acting ability.

Strangeness  Though Ivan is a historical epic based around events that actually happened and featuring characters who actually existed, it is far from a dry biopic.  Ivan (Nikolai Cherkasov), who under normal circumstances would serve as an audience surrogate, is so thoroughly defamiliarized that he is impossible to relate to, yet Eisenstein is constantly complicating and contradicting his portrayal of his protagonist.  Eisenstein doesn't pigeonhole Ivan as either a psychotic monster (as he was, by all accounts, in real life) or a patriotic hero (as Stalin, who commissioned the making of the film, saw him), but instead presents him as a man who is always both.

Unity of Form and Subject Matter  A synopsis of the events of Ivan the Terrible wouldn't make it sound terribly different from other historical epics, but the way that the events are stylistically depicted is what sets the film apart and gives it its meaning.  Each visual detail, each blast of Prokofiev's magnificent score, and each edit complicates, questions, and (at times) even contradicts the action of the narrative.  While this trick allowed Eisenstein to slip a lot of subversive material past the Stalinist censors, the compromises that he had to make to pass Ivan off as Soviet propaganda give the film a purposeful schizophrenia, constantly torn between national pride and oppressed paranoia, that is probably an accurate reflection of the feelings of most post-WWII Soviets.  Ivan is ostensibly about its titular subject – or at least it is using Ivan as a stand-in for Stalin – and it works on that level, but its real subject matter is the conflicted legacy of Soviet fascism.

Tradition  Ivan uniquely feels simultaneously like a piece of Soviet propaganda and a criticism of Soviet fascism, which arguably makes it the ultimate film of the Soviet era.  Of course, Soviet models weren't the only influences on the film.  The two-part structure, the elaborate décor, and the general mixture of operatic camp and exciting serial adventure mark Ivan as a descendant of Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen (1924), which seems to have been a specific visual reference point for the design of the costumes and the wildly expressive acting.  More specifically, the film resembles Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress (1934), which similarly depicted medieval history as a melodramatic nightmare of claustrophobic hallways, baroque furnishings, and whispered intrigues.  And of course Eisenstein was further developing the style he'd used in his previous film, Alexander Nevsky (1938), which, masterful as it is, seems like a mere warm-up for the densely layered stylistics of Ivan.  Eisenstein's eccentric and bold film set the pace for the even more extreme Soviet historical epics of the future, such as Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1966) and Sergei Paradjanov's The Color of Pomegranates (1968).

Repeatability  Any movie as detailed and layered as Ivan the Terrible – and there aren't that many of them – is inherently rewatchable.  It's fun to speculate about the thought processes that went into some of the film's more eccentric stylistic flourishes.  It isn't possible to fully parse out which elements of Ivan are propaganda and which are bold critiques of Stalin's reign, since both tones often appear onscreen simultaneously, which means that each subsequent viewing of the film will produce a different experience.

Viewer Engagement  Ivan the Terrible is a thoroughly exciting film for its entire three-hour length.  Even when there are periods of relative calm in the narrative (which isn't very often) there is so much going on stylistically that it is impossible to look away from the screen.  Ivan can be enjoyed for its sheer beauty, or for its insanely high-pitched melodrama, or even simply as an entertaining biopic.  But viewers paying careful attention to Eisenstein's delicately balanced stylistic choices will be able to enjoy the film on an extra, subliminal level, as they pick up on the subtle clues that Eisenstein used to smuggle subversive messages into seemingly propagandistic scenes.  A number of scenes depict Ivan's face half-lit and half-dark (the light and dark sides changing whenever Cherkasov moves his head or Eisenstein changes the lighting) before he moves out of frame, at which point his exaggerated shadow still stalks the screen.  Through this series of visual tricks – which often find Eisenstein achieving the dynamic complexity of his famous montage techniques in single shots – the film is able to simultaneously depict a man torn between noble and insane intentions and to suggest how Ivan's decisions will leave a mark on the world even when he isn't there.  The claustrophobic design of the sets, filled with narrow passageways and overwhelming religious frescoes, makes the paranoia of Ivan's (and Stalin's) time palpable, and gives the audience a powerful sense of what life under fascist rule is like.

Morality  It is often said that the first half of Ivan the Terrible is pro-Stalin propaganda, and the second half is an anti-Stalin screed, but the truth is quite a bit more complicated than that.  Though there is an unmistakable (and fully justified) anger in Eisenstein's depiction of Ivan's descent into madness in the film's second half, the film for the most part manages the tricky balancing act of condemning the tsar's actions without presenting him as a simple monster.  A flashback to Ivan's childhood makes him seem equally sympathetic and pathetic, and there are hints throughout the film of how his upbringing and environment ultimately drove him to madness.  Narrative moments of triumph are consistently, slyly undercut by Eisenstein's stylistic choices from the first frame to the last.  Living under Stalin's rule, and under pressure to conform to his leader's vision, Eisenstein literally risked his life by making Ivan a stand-in for Stalin, and then presenting him as a flawed, possibly insane tyrant.  In doing so, he gave voice to the unspoken truths of WWII-era Soviet life, and turned Ivan the Terrible into one of the most powerfully subversive films of all time.

Ivan the Terrible passes the Masterpiece Test

UP NEXT  Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God, another film about a deranged tyrant.

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