Long live the Tsar
Sergei Eisenstein is considered one of film's greatest artists, but few outside of so-called film snobs have seen his work. Perhaps it's not surprising that the masses do not flock to old black and white historical dramas of periods they know nothing about, on top of which they have to pay attention to subtitled Russian. As time goes on, I realize more and more that what you get out of a film is directly proportional to the effort put into it. With Eisenstein, at least for me, it is critical to get rid of all the distractions, and let the film wash over me.
Ivan the Terrible is Eisenstein's retelling of the historical figure. He envisioned the project in three parts, but was only able to complete the first two due to failing health and Stalin's desire after seeing Part II to quash to project, as Ivan's totalitarian techniques were becoming uncomfortably similar to his own.
The blurb at the start of Part I tells us that Ivan was the first Tsar of Russia, pulling together the loosely knit collection of principalities into an actual state, and putting military might behind the throne. The words are not strictly necessary, but sets the stage for the opening coronation scene - essentially, Ivan's story already in progress.
Ivan's position as Tsar is tenuous. As the Muscovy Prince, he controlled just one of the many local city-states of Russia. The Boyars, the ruling nobility of Russia, naturally preferred the existing system and the advantages it held for them. From the start, they make snide comments, and aimed to control, if not rid themselves of, the new Tsar.
A significant reason for Russian unity for Ivan was to assert a military influence in the world. Not just to defend from the frequent invasions by Russia's neighbors, but to achieve an equal trade footing, as they were at the time landlocked. In the films, we get to see just one campaign in progress, against the Kazans, the first and most significant war in Russia's emergence.
Ivan returns from the front in ill health, launching us into palace intrigue. He believes he is soon to die, and asks the Boyars to pledge allegiance to his infant son. They refuse, save for Prince Kurbsky. Ivan recovers, gives Kurbsky command of his westward army to attack Livonia (modern Latvia and Estonia), and begins to extort the Boyars for the war effort. Some of them flee, other remain to conspire against Ivan. The church joins with them, finding they are not able to exert their accustomed pressure over this Tsar. A leading figure here is Efrosinia, Ivan's aunt, who wishes to see her idiot son, Vladimir, placed on the throne.
Efrosinia takes an opportunity to poison Anastasia while she is ill. Ivan is stunned by his loss, but does not make the connection immediately. On the heels of Kurbsky's flight out of the country, he feels truly alone, unable to truly trust anyone.
Ivan chooses to leave Moscow, reproaching the Boyars, and inviting the common people of the country to support him. When they line up outside his retreat in Alexandrov village at the end of the film, the effect is simultaneously inspiring and sinister. Watch the framing here for some truly marvelous compositions.
After repeated viewings, I have most of the main characters down, but some of the peripheral figures are still vague. It's not hard to understand their function, and perhaps identity is beside the point. Yet I can't help feeling that there are deeper levels to uncover.
I have not read Eisenstein's theories on editing, but it is clear from any close viewing that he is effective. He goes further than most in using visuals to communicate. Words often become unnecessary in this world - though it certainly helps that the material lends itself to his dramatic stylizing. For Kurbsky's near lack of speaking, we get a very good idea just how divided his loyalties are.
I'll get into more details of Einstein's visuals in Part II, where they are featured a bit more prominently than Part I. Don't stop looking for visual connections here, though. There's still plenty to find.
I have a host of nitpicks about the film which might go away with a better knowledge of Russian history. After all, Eisenstein was filming for a Russian audience. Such things as why Ivan IV was crowned as Tsar in the first place would be very interesting to learn, but would it really enhance the film? It's hard to say, but in the effort of a several part project on Ivan's life, this does not seem a small detail. Clearly, the role of Tsar was intended by the Boyars as a kind of figurehead position, but why the need to put someone there in the first place if they hadn't had one before, and none of them were interested in a central authority? Is Ivan a Boyar? On this question, I am rather confused - his aunt is one, as is his wife Anastasia, but his attitude and at times how he is treated suggests he is not. This information may seem conspicuously missing, but the film stands on its own fairly remarkably well without it.
One of the aspects of Part I that strikes me the most is the physical transformation of Ivan. We meet him at his coronation, unshaven, dressed in white (or at least bright clothing), giving a boyish impression of hope and idealism. In the second major sequence, his wedding to Anastasia, he is already beginning to change with his hair slicked back, and a closely trimmed beard along his jawline. By the end of the film, his pointed beard seems sinister, and he dresses like a goth icon, exuding torment and dread. His journey is difficult, though the film overstates the historic tragedy in this period to a minor degree.
For these films, be sure to get the Criterion version. There are some slapdash editions out there with poor, sometimes unreadable subtitles. Though I suppose if you are fluent in Russian, it won't matter.
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