Saturday 19 October 2013

Ivan the Terrible Part I + II (Ivan Groznyj) (1944)

Ivan den Grusomme
So, yet another airport review, this time from Beijing. That means plenty of time to watch movies and contemplate them, but no internet to verify the facts and spelling of exotic names. Well, so be it.

The mammoth assignment this time is Eisensteins 2/3 epic on Ivan the Terrible. Mammoth because the total length is 3 hours and because it feels very long. 2/3 because Stalin did not like the second part so Eisenstein got barred from making the third and final act.

The story of Ivan the Terrible is one of brutal struggle for power. The high and mighty of 16th century Russia were playing a game of thrones at the expense of everything else. It is an interesting if brutal story for anybody with an inkling of interest in history. At that time an echelon of nobles called the “Boyar” was effectively running the country. They did so with less interest in the common good than in their personal gain. With a divided Russia they were free to do much as they pleased. Into this oligarchic free-for-all steps the prince Ivan. He is the royal heir, but he want to be more than a figurehead. He wants to concentrate power in a strong leader (himself) for the benefit of the country in general and against the vile neighbors who threaten the borders and sovereignty of Russia specifically. He wants to be Czar, the Russian equivalent of an Emperor. This of course happens at the expense of the greedy Boyar who are less than pleased with the prospect of a strong central power. The story of Ivan the Terrible is basically the story of this struggle and how Ivan crushed and abolished the Boyar class.

In those days (the 20’ies to the 40’ies and beyond, not the 16th century) the Russians did not make movies without ulterior motives. In this case Russia was fighting a deadly war against Germany and had a need to be strong and united against the foreign foe. The modern equivalent of Ivan the Terrible is of course Stalin and the Boyar are partly the feudal lords the communists dispensed with in the revolution, partly seditious elements in the Soviet state that Stalin was constantly fighting, real or imagined. This message comes through quite clearly in this film. Unfortunately for Eisenstein he got a little too close to the truth. The Boyar may be the bad guys, but Ivan does not hold back and use secret police, executions without a court and nasty little games of his own. Stalin was not so pleased. He pulled the plug when the second film was ready and banned it. It was only presented for the public in 1958 after both Stalin and Eisenstein was gone. As far as I can tell Eisenstein did not make any more films.

Eisenstein, the king of the montage, was big in the twenties. His films were admired all over the world and even today they are at least technically impressive. Unfortunately in my opinion he never made the step to the talking picture. “Ivan Grozny” is by and large a silent film with audio. This may sound like a contradiction and that is also at the core of the problem. You cannot really combine the two. Well, not unless your name is Charlie Chaplin. “Ivan Grozny” is filmed like a silent movie with exaggerated expressions whether facial or physical. The acting is totally over the top as if all their communication must come through visually. You would almost think that Eisenstein had forgotten that he actually had sound available and could let the actors communicate verbally as well. Not that they do not, but it is not conversation as such, nobody actually “talks”, they all declare. Together with the exaggerated gestures it all come through very theatrical and melodramatic and is borderline comical. Personally I refuse to believe that a strong, powerful and ruthless leader like Ivan would throw himself dramatically on the floor or sidelong in a chair because he was lacking friends. He may have had his issues, but here he is seriously manic-depressive. In parts I am reminded of my previous film, Henry V, in that it almost appear as if Eisenstein was presenting the story of Ivan the Terrible as a Shakespeare act and like with “Henry V” this does not really go down well with me.

The problems are worst in the first part, which dragged forever. In the second part there is more drama and action and (slightly) less speeches and that helps. After the first film I was ready to declare the film a failure but it did redeem itself some in the second part.

If the film can be believed Russia was quite a dump in the 16th century. Even the members of the ruling class were unshaven, wild-haired tramps and Ivan was no better. With his long greasy hair and stiff beard he looks outright disgusting. Add to that his tantrums and he could be mistaken for an asylum inmate on the run. Maybe a Jesus figure? Unlikely in staunchly atheist Soviet. The castles are bleak affairs with cold stone, low doors and hardly any decoration. It is cold on the top and not much better below. Or outside. In fact all foreigners look far more pleasing than any Russian and they come through as a barbaric bunch. I doubt that was the intension.

Finally a word about the Boyar. They are really vile, especially Ivan’s aunt. She is fiercely scheming to place her half-wit son on the throne. He is a lapdog and would effectively put her on the throne. He appears the fool, yet he speaks the most intelligent lines of all in the film when he asks his mother why she is so eager to place him on the throne and push him to his death, to which she has no good answer or when he asks Ivan why anybody would want the throne when it is a cold and dangerous place. See, from fools, drunkards and children you will hear the truth.


  1. Know what I remember about this? People bugging their eyes out. That's about it.

  2. Yeah, that is quite amazing. I think some 20% of movies combined consists of somebody staring bugeyed at somebody else.

  3. I'm with Steve in that I watched both of these films and didn't retain much of anything from them. I do remember the over the top acting, and your description of it being a silent movie with sound is right on the money. I also remember liking the second part more than the first, but really just wanting it to be over.

    1. It is a shame really because this is a story with a lot of potential and Eisenstein seems to have had free hands to make it, yet he ended up with this. The first part I had to chop into pieces to get through, but the second part was much better.

  4. I'm with you on this one. I have never really warmed to Eisenstein. Some of the images are quite memorable though.

    I hope you have/had a successful visit in Beijing!

    1. On some I suppose masochistic level I quite like his earlier work. The messages are highly political, but he was good at creating drama with his montage technique. With Ivan Grozny however he looks like a silent director who never made the transition to sound.

      The Beijing trip went well. It was a short trip, a training session for our local agents and a trade show. China is always a facinating place to visit, but this time there was no time for the tourist stuff. I am in Beijing every autumn so I have seen most of those thing by now.