What it is • The Ivan the Terrible films are among the most unconventional biopics of all time: more about gesture and expression than action. Eisenstein stylizes his live actors and physical sets into grotesque cartoons (J. Hoberman notes that the film "approach[es] animation...Nikolai Cherkasov’s stooped, skinny Ivan might equally have been modeled on a Disney vulture"). Even so, Ivan the Terrible Pt. I (1944) comes much closer than Pt. II to conventional biopic format. Its story documents a series of notable events in Ivan's life, from his coronation and victory in battle to the loss of his wife and triumphant return to Moscow after a temporary abdication. The first film alsoon depicts a notable physical transformation, with Ivan slowly morphing from dashing, fresh-cheeked young man to bearded, wizened old(-looking) man. The second film, on the other hand, zeroes in one specific story, narrowing its scope in both time and space (other than the dazzling checkerboard-court sequence in Poland that opens the movie). The aristocratic boyars who plotted against Ivan throughout Pt. I are now closing in on him in Moscow and only through his diabolical cleverness and dedication is he able to outwit their attempts to humiliate and eventually assassinate him. Although Ivan's wit and charm, contrasted with the devious sobriety of his opponents, secures him as a sympathetic protagonist, he also seems quite grotesque - calling him a "good guy" would certainly be stretching it. This was ostensibly why Joseph Stalin, who had endorsed the first movie, suppressed the second, chiding Eisenstein and Cherkasov for obscuring the motivations for Ivan's "terrible" actions (something Stalin knew a bit about, and must have taken personally). However, Stalin and the censors in his employ also seemed perturbed by the film's avant-garde nature, which takes the experimentation of the first film to new levels. Pt. II mixes garish, hellish colors with stark black-and-white, playing with light and shadow across Ivan's face so that he looks more like an axe murderer than a noble head of state, and distorting its human forms until they exist more as tactile shapes in their own right than easily-understood signifiers. In short, Ivan the Terrible Pt. II is as concerned with form as content, conceiving form as content in a way that simply didn't compute with Soviet preferences for social realism.
Why I like it •
One of this list's perpetual themes is transformation. I love movies that can show how a person, place, or idea evolves over time so that one story contains a whole range of human experience within its confines. As such, Ivan the Terrible Pt. I should be my favorite of these two films: few films better take a human face from clean-cut point A to crooked point Z. Yet when I was composing the list in 2011, Pt. II easily supplanted its other half. Why? Well, as much as I love that big-picture stuff, I am also really drawn to the type of visceral impact that Eisenstein conveys so effortlessly in Ivan. The director's penchant for montage has always appealed to me, ever since I saw The Battleship Potemkin as a teenager and recognized my own affinity for rhythmic cutting in the (then) 75-year-old silent film. Somehow, though, it is Ivan that lingers most emphatically in my memory. Though not exactly ignoring montage, it embodies that same rhythmic impulse within single shots or even single compositions. If Potemkin or October are like Rosetta stones, originating many familiar tricks and techniques that still inform contemporary filmmaking, Ivan seems more like a hidden doorway, opening into an alternate universe of cinematic possibilities between (or beyond) realism or lifeless illustration. These image crackle with the same unnerving energy as the uncanny, modernist score of the other Sergei (Prokofiev). Few movies have been so resolutely theatrical and cinematic at the very same time, not alternating between the two modes but fusing them into something higher. For all their influence and acclaim, the Ivan the Terrible films - and particularly Pt. II - still represent an underground stream that has remained mostly untapped in subsequent years.
How you can see it • Both discs of Ivan the Terrible are available on the Criterion Collection and can be rented from Netflix. I reviewed the two films together several years ago.
What do you think? • Do you see Pt. I and Pt. II as different films, or two parts of the same film? Which part do you prefer? Do you think Pt. I works without reference to Pt. II? Does the Ivan the Terrible saga seem incomplete without the never-completed (and barely-begun) Pt. III? What patterns or motifs do you notice in the mise en scene? Is Ivan's appeal (or lack thereof) intellectual or visceral for you? Which other films, previous or subsequent, capture the same feeling as Ivan? How do you perceive the films' relationship with the earlier - more straightforwardly propagandistic - Alexander Nevsky? How about its relationship to Eisenstein's earlier silent films? Do Eisenstein's aesthetic effects detract from or enhance the narrative? Do you care at all about the narrative or the characters while watching?
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