Russian Pomp and Circumstances


Ivan the Terrible

Directed by

Sergei Eisenstein

Harvard Film Archives

"Ivan the Terrible" is probably not on the top of your list of "must see" films this semester. Rethink your premises. This world cinema classic, one of Sergei Einstein's masterworks, captures the defining historical memories of Russian culture and civilization. An aesthetically magnificent film, it is also an interesting psychological portrait of one of Russia's most noted tyrants.

The films is in two parts (shown on two separate nights to avoid overdose). Part I begins with Ivan's coronation ceremonies at the Church. Eisenstien pays an extended amount of cinematographic attention to these ceremonies, replete with a panoramic view of the Byzantine style apse and the lugubrious countenances of the clergy. In the midst of all the pomp and circumstance of the Church and the court nobles, two smirking boyars (nobles) dump huge baskets of gold coins over the young czar's pointy crown. Ivan's gaze remains stoic as if he were merely caught in an everyday downpour. We know immediately that Einstein is on our side; we are certain after the initial bit of hesitation that this is no dry three-hour history lecture. He is prepared to let us use our imaginations about this remote and dark time period.

The film takes us through the defining early moments of Ivan's reign: his marriage to the beloved Anastasia, immortalized as the paragon of duty and honor; the conflicts and intrigues among the boyars, who are fearful of the new tsar's control; Ivan's relationship with his friend Kurbsky, who secretly harbors resentments for his number two status; and Ivan's early sickness, which makes everyone in the court wonder about the tenuous future of the Russian state. Part I ends with the death of Anastasia, a turning point for Ivan, who loses the only person in his court that he can trust, making him feel more menaced and thus determined to make his regime more hard-line than ever.

Part II easily picks up on this note. If you only have time to watch one part (they are each an hour and a half), and you have special fascination for tyranny, villainy and intrigue, this is the time to tune in. If you prefer romance and subtle assertions of power and lofty historical visions, stick with part I. At this point, Ivan flatly says, "You call me Ivan the Terrible? Then that is what I will be!" And does he ever look the part. The actors in this film have a great penchant for glaring with demonic and possessed eyes. In part I, Ivan seems to be in a trance in the scenes in the church or when he is making grand proclamations. In Part II, his eyes are a sight to behold: they no longer dart from side to side, but stare resolutely straight on, offering us evil personified. To quell the boyar conspiracy, Ivan creates his secret police force, the "Oprichnina." The parallels between this medieval Russian epoque and the Stalinist Terror are obvious. It's not clear whether Eisenstein intended it to be this way or whether we are looking back with twentieth century hindsight at the parallels.

In any case, Eisenstein creates the image of absolute tyranny well. The film ends on a triumphant, melodramatic note; Ivan has consolidated his rule, weathered the storms of opposition and has shaped the course of Russia's historical destiny.

After three hours of immersion in sixteenth century Russia on the big screen, it's clear why Eisenstein was one of the big movers and shakers of twentieth century film. His use of architecture to frame the characters is powerful, because it helps to

Photo Courtesy Yon Barna emphasize their emotional and psychologicalstates. When Ivan makes a speech, the eyes of thelisteners are drawn to him just as the lines ofthe nave draw our vision to the center of thechurch. In another scene, where Ivan issupervising the movements of the soldiers, hestands on top of a hill. The horizontal tilt ofhis face crosses the perpendicular of the soldierswending their way below, forming the image of across. This use of the camera and the staging ofthe pictures are remarkable.

The dialogue occurs at a slow pace, which helpsto heighten the drama. Eisenstein depicts theceremonies elaborately--the dances, funerals, andcoronation are contrasted with the privateconversations between the different plotters andtroublemakers and the more intimate conversationsbetween Ivan and Anastasia. The intermingling ofthese scenes emphasize the dichotomy between thesecret goings-on in the court and the more publicdisplays of absolutism and power.

"Ivan the Terrible" is a fantastic piece ofRussian history. Besides revealing Eisenstein'screative interpretation of life behind the throne,it is an artistic and cinematic chef-d'oeuvre inits own right. If you are up for someuntraditional entertainment, "Ivan the Terrible"is the movie of the week to see