While many people in the United States have heard of Ivan IV of Russia, most of us know little more than his nickname. There isn’t much more you can add to a sobriquet like “the terrible.” Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Ivan the Terrible, sometimes a name says it all. A few of us might remember from our high school history classes that the nickname “the terrible” is better translated as “Ivan the Badass” or “Ivan the One Who Shouldn’t Be Fucked With” than “Ivan the Evil.” We might recall how he drove the remaining Mongols out of Russia, humbled the Russian nobility, known as the boyars, and became the first Czar of a united Russia, that he’s widely considered to be the father of his country.
Film enthusiasts will immediately tell you that Sergei Eisenstein, the great Soviet film director, made two films about Ivan the Terrible. The will point out that Ivan the Terrible Part I was made in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic while Hitler’s troops were at the gates of Moscow, and that it was released to great acclaim and to Stalin’s approval in 1944. They will talk about how Ivan the Terrible Part II didn’t pass the censors in 1947, and had to wait until 1958 for its first theatrical run. They will probably rave about its cinematic brilliance, but complain about the plot, praise Eisenstein for his technical wizardry, but speculate about whether or not his relationship with Stalin kept him from writing a better screenplay.
Ivan the Terrible is probably best thought of as a visual symphony of oriental despotism. Eisenstein’s use of shadows, framing, the film’s rich black and white tonality, all of it conjures up not only the terror and majesty of the state, but the flat out weirdness of any autocratic leader. It’s easy to see why Stalin raved over the Part I and rejected Part II. It could have just as easily been the other way around. Ivan IV of Russia, played by Nikolay Cherkasov — the same actor who played Alexander Nevsky — manages to be commanding and sympathetic one moment, a monstrous, paranoid tyrant the next. You can almost feel Eisenstein’s terror in the presence of Joseph Stalin, a man he had to do his best to satisfy or see damage to his career, or worse. Eisenstein spins that terror and confusion into a kind of visual inventiveness that has to rank with the greatest cinematographers and still photographers. I’ve taken tens of thousands of photos over the years. I thought myself long past being easily surprised, but not here. Indeed, I spent half the movie just marveling at what seemed at times to be an El Greco, at other times a Diego Velázquez, and at yet other times a grotesque Rembrandt coming to life before my very eyes.
The plot is much simpler and less inventive than the cinematography, but still a nuanced, psychologically astute portrait of a tyrant made right under the nose of a tyrant. If you want to compare it to a western film, take Anthony Mann’s film from 1961, El Cid. A great, larger than life hero tries to rouse a nation against a looming foreign threat while spoiled, lazy, egoistical and dishonest aristocrats around him scheme and plot for their petty self-interest. Where Charlton Heston’s Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar is dashing and romantic, Nikolay Cherkasov’s Ivan is hard, calculating and ruthless. Where Anthony Mann’s landscapes are vast, open spaces, grand citadels and a broad sky, a medieval Europe that, perhaps, never existed, Eisenstein’s palaces and orthodox churches are cramped and ornate. With their thick walls and low hanging ceilings, they capture the brutalist copies of the Byzantine architecture the Russians learned in Constantinople. Where The Cid is straightforward, noble and chivalric, Ivan is guarded and Machiavellian. The Cid is an idealized knight in shining armor. Ivan IV is a complex, twisted despot, but the narrative is the same, nationalism against the aristocracy, a charismatic leader of the people versus a self-interested and selfish, a scheming and unpatriotic ruling class.
Ivan the Terrible is also a film about Sergei Eisenstein’s demons, more specifically, his fear of homosexuality and domination by woman. Ivan’s main antagonist — a fantastically over the top villain played by Serafima Birman — is his aunt Efrosinia Staritska. Efronsinaia, the leader of the boyar class, has one goal through both parts of Ivan the Terrible, kill or depose Ivan to put her mentally handicapped son, Vladimir Staritska, in his place. Vladimir, a grotesquely effeminate kabuki mask of a man, has no color to his face. He wears lipstick on this thick, blubbery lips. He falls into his mother’s arms when he’s afraid. More idiot child than man, his brain and his will have been turned to mush by the domineering Efronsinaia. This is what happens, Eisenstein is telling us, when a man never becomes a man, when he fails to break away from his mother, or establish himself as an adult. He remains a grotesque, a powerful symbol of the fear of female domination as well as a representative of an idiot, decadent aristocracy.
In the end, Ivan skilfully vanquishes his enemies and saves Russia from the Poles and the Mongols. So why did Stalin have it buried? Perhaps it hit too close to home? There is so much palace intrigue, so many poisonings that it might have brought up in his mind the (probably fictitious) “Doctors Plot” that terrified him during the end of his life. We meet an early predecessor to the KGB, the Oprichnina, an organization recruited from the common people and lower gentry that ruthlessly carry out Ivan’s commands against the boyars. Even more so, the characterization of Ivan himself probably scandalized a dictator who was used to flattery. Ivan shares in Eisenstein’s paranoia over his homosexuality. Now forthright and masculine, now lurking in the shadows, Ivan is half Alexander Nevsky, half vampire king. In spite of the fact that he was writing the film for a dictator, Eisenstein nailed the personality of a dictator so well he was probably lucky he escaped with his life.