thatcow

The Boyar Conspiracy

The second and prematurely final part of Sergei Eisenstein's masterpiece begins a little oddly to my modern eyes, introducing many of the characters and the actors that portray them. These we already know from Part I, some only in passing and not necessarily identified at the time. It's an effective way to get the story rolling. I'm a little nagged by the incongruity, but looking at Ivan The Terrible as a single work, the technique was necessary to remind the audience of the characters. The films were completed consecutively, but Part II was not released until 1958, after Stalin's death. Was the introduction part of the original plan, or deemed necessary by the extreme delay in getting the film out? I suspect the latter, as the sequence doesn't suggest the same great care Eisenstein took with the rest of the film. The story proper begins with the traitor Kurbsky in the palace of the Polish King Sigismund. The first line, spoken to Kurbsky, is "Some defeats are more brilliant than victories", which refers to how Kurbsky, in charge of the western Russian army, was defeated in Livonia. The films do take some liberty with history, as the line only makes sense as Kurbsky's defeat and flight are tied together, strongly implying that he was disloyal in battle. In reality, Kurbsky only fled to Poland after falling in disfavor with Ivan, because of the Livonian defeat.

This playing with the facts is hardly unusual in historical drama. Ivan is a tragic figure, and we see his development from different angles. Kurbsky is fairly peripheral in Part II, in fact, but this opening reprises elements from Part I from outside, setting the stage for what is to follow.

Ivan returns to Moscow from Alexandrov Village to reassert his authority. He sets about to create the Oprichnina, a "widower's portion" of lands he has sole authority over. In reality, this area is carefully selected in its design to reduce the power of the Boyars. The edition I am watching (not the Criterion, unfortunately) confuses the Oprichnina with the Oprichniki, his own police force to control the Oprichnina, and often considered a forerunner to the later Soviet secret police of the Cheka, NKVD and KGB. We are treated to the one and only flashback in Ivan The Terrible, where young Ivan witnesses the poisoning death of his mother at the hands of the Boyars. This is the seed of anger that lies behind the tyranny of his rule. As the child Muscovy prince, he began to assert himself out of the unfairness inherent in the Boyars' influence, but even then, by having one of the Boyars executed, we see the streak of vengefulness and distrust that so dominated him later on. He is dwarfed by his environment and the bear-like Boyars that surround him, even when he applies the power of his position, reinforcing the image of someone reaching beyond their natural abilities. What is interesting is that this sequence was intended as a prologue at the beginning of the first film, and overruled by uncertain censors. The fortunate irony is that these scenes unify Part II in a much stronger way, when perhaps the original idea would have resonated through to the end of the unfinished Part III.

The bloodshed begins with the execution of members of the Archbishop Philip's family. Indeed, this is about as much as we get to see, the film being content to rely primarily on the political manipulations from this point on - but this bloody tyranny is strongly implied nonetheless. The Archbishop is a former friend who opposes Ivan's efforts to consolidate his power. When Ivan learns that his wife Anastasia was likely poisoned, and by his aunt Efrosinia at that, his resolve deepens. At the same time, Philip is moved to join Efrosinia in ridding the country of Ivan, and placing Efrosinia's son Vladimir as Tsar. Despite his own suspicions of his Aunt, Ivan protects her, somehow preferring the appearance of family cohesion over admitting the reality. But when Philip publically condemns and ridicules, he arrests him and embraces their name for him - Ivan the Terrible.

Images surround the characters in frescos behind and around them, images of death and religion like ghosts of history. The compositions are exact, like paintings. No moment is carelessly shot, each character expressed to their surroundings in lockstep to their relationship to the plot.

One sequence renowned for its use of color (there is another later on, but the rest of Ivan is black and white) is a kind of palace celebration, with frenetic music and dancing, at moments suggesting a modern mosh pit. The scene is painted in sinister reds and blues and is likely the most important of the film. Ivan is a master manipulator, playing on the insecurities of his loyal Oprichniki against his family ties with the boy-like Vladimir, whom his aunt wishes to become Tsar. A drunk Vladimir spills his guts about an assassination plot against the Tsar. And Ivan plays on Vladimir's hesitant desires to be Tsar. I'm spoiling a lot of plot here, but I'll hold back here and just say Ivan finds a way to save face so completely and cynically, he clearly is down to only having his own interests at heart.

Much of the film is meant symbolically, and here most of all. Many images are repeats of what we have seen already, but in different form, as Ivan begins to others what has been wrought on him in the past. Look to the documentaries on the Criterion edition to see the comparisons. While we may not recall the earlier scenes at this time, Eisenstein's idea is that we feel them unconsciously through the similar imagery. Whether that is true or not, as art, the technique is masterful in terms of deep structure.

I suppose I should say something of the Prokofiev score, which is widely noted for these films. I'm not big on soundtracks, but they do play their role. The spaces between dialog are often quite long, as so much is communicated by the images. The score may be necessary to fill that space, but it goes beyond the rudiments of tone, suggesting insights into Ivan's character.

Where Part I shows pride in the unity of Russia, Part II delves into the folly of holding too hard onto power. Like the Russian revolution itself, in Part I Eisenstein demonstrates the expected opposition to a sympathetic (at least to Stalin) cause. Yet Part II turns the story on its tail. Ivan's respect and care for the people slides into neglect his grip grows tighter. There is some speculation than Ivan was not quite sane. The film doesn't show him in such a light, but clearly he is not far from falling off the edge.

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