Ivan the Terrible: Parts I and II mark the end of a legendary career. It must be seen in order to appreciate Sergei Eisenstein, a pioneer with a theoretical yet practical approach to cinema. Though you may not love his work, it deserves respect, as Eisenstein was a film intellectual with perhaps no equal. He only made seven films, some of which are treasures belonging to humanity’s pantheon of artistic and intellectual achievement.
- Director: Sergei Eisenstein
- Writer: Sergei Eisenstein
- Cast: Nikolay Cherkasov, Lyudmila Tselikobskaya, Serafima Birman, Mikhail Nazvanov
Based on the life of Tsar Ivan IV, Ivan the Terrible tells the story of the man who unified much of Russia in the 16th century. Though this was not, however, meant to be historically accurate, it mostly focuses on Ivan’s coronation, the bitter oppositions it created, and his grandeur.
Eisenstein demonstrated a mastery of editing techniques, an eye for great framing, and complete control of a large production. The visuals in this film are absolutely striking. You get the sense that each frame was meticulously planned. Even if you can’t get into the plot or any of the characters, the shadows, the lighting and the compositions in each scene will nearly hypnotize you. Eisenstein took his work seriously. He spent two years studying the life of Tsar Ivan IV before beginning production, although he also took many creative liberties. The relationship between foregrounds and backgrounds is nothing short of beauty. The scene in which Ivan sits in a room filled with candles is one I’ll never forget. It reminded me of Macario, in which dozens of candles were flawlessly photographed in one of the most memorable scenes of Mexican cinema. With elaborate costumes and sets, Eisenstein’s directing blends the characters into the sets in such a way that it all feels very seamless. The historical subject matter and the stylized acting reminds me of The Passion of Joan of Arc, while also resembling certain Herzog movies. The theatricality of the scenes brings to mind the work of Orson Welles. For my money, Ivan the Terrible reaches a level of entertainment that a film like Chimes at Midnight only occasionally flirted with. I would also argue that even the action and the grand sets in Ivan the Terrible are worthy of comparison with anything made by Kurosawa over the next 20 to 40 years.
Of all the films ever made, only a few can claim to be made by someone who pioneered the medium itself. When talking about a film directed by Eisenstein, we’re talking about the inventor of the montage, and perhaps even the first film theorist. Watching his earliest films is like catching the earliest glimpse of a more sophisticated cinema. Perhaps only D.W. Griffith comes close to him in this respect. Eisenstein had begun simultaneously shooting this project as a trilogy. He died after Ivan the Terrible Part II, but with it’s viewing had fallen out of favor with Stalin, who felt it too closely resembled his own dictatorship. As a result, even though Eisenstein had shot much of the third film, it was destroyed by the Stalin government and was never to be seen.
Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:
It’s interesting to note that Eisenstein was known to have created the curriculum for student directors as a teacher later in his career. He will forever be studied in film schools across the world and for good reason. Ebert’s review does a great job of articulating his importance, the backdrop of this production, and its merits. Meanwhile, Ebert also points out some of its “problems”, mainly as a result of its exaggeratedly fictional and bombastic nature of Ivan the Terrible. And yet, Part I and Part II both work, though mainly due to its aesthetics. Interestingly enough, this may be the first time I’ve read Ebert admit that loving a certain film feels more like duty than a pleasure.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: GOOD
Do you like Ivan the Terrible (Parts I and II)? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Last Tango in Paris
Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, a monolith of celluloid currently comprised of approximately 363 films (more if you count the trilogies, the Up docs and Decalogue). Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. By taking on Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (Parts I and II) this week, he now has 358 under his belt and 5 films left to go.