Tag Archives: Nikolai Cherkasov

Ivan the Terrible Part I (1944) and Ivan the Terrible Part II (1958)

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.

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

The Sochi Olympics and the protests in Kiev have forced people in the United States to think about Eastern European fascism and the Russian history of charismatic strong men at the head of their government. So I finally got around to watching Alexander Nevsky, Sergei Eisenstein’s film about the Russian victory over the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus in 1242. That it’s an important film is obvious by the number of western “epic” films, Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian, that have plagiarized, or “sampled” long sequences from the famous “battle of the ice.” But Alexander Nevsky also raises an important question. Was the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany during the Second World War a victory of socialism over fascism, or a victory of Russian nationalism over German nationalism?

Alexander Nevsky is clearly anti-Nazi propaganda. The Teutonic knights, called “the Germans” even though historically most of the Catholic forces at the Battle of Lake Peipus were ethnic Estonians, are the blackest of villains. They murder prisoners in cold blood. They throw toddlers into a raging bonfire. They suborn traitors and collaborators among the Slavic people they intend eventually to exterminate. It’s also anti-Catholic — though not necessarily pro-Russian-Orthodox — propaganda. There is a high-ranking monk who looks like the Emperor Palpitine from Star Wars and a church organist who looks like Igor from Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein.

Incidentally, the most obvious example of western “sampling” of Alexander Nevsky— the ride of the Rohirrim from Return of the King — re imagines the Teutonic Knights as the good guys.

The plot — often considered the weak spot compared to the film’s technical mastery — is simple enough. Alexander Nevsky, the “prince” of Novgorod makes peace with the Mongol Horde in order to focus on the more urgent threat from the west, the Teutonic Knights. “Prince,” of course is a problematic title in a communist film and, indeed, Nevsky, played by the charismatic 6’5” actor Nikolay Cherkasov is more of a “temporary dictator” or “appointed general in chief” than a hereditary aristocrat. If he’s a “king” he’s a king in the Spartan, not the Louis XIV manner. If he’s a superman, he also mends fishing nets with “the people.” In other words, Nevsky is a populist strongman, Stalin, Castro, shirtless Vladimir Putin, or, perhaps, even Lincoln, the rail splitting superman who also became the democratic leader of the United States.

After the Teutonic Knights destroy the city of Pskov, they set their sights on Novgorod. The rich, the ruling class, the fat bourgeoisie, want to make peace. But the “people”want to appoint Nevsky supreme commander. We meet the comic relief, Vasili Buslai and Gavrilo Oleksich, two friends and rivals — think Legalos and Gimli from Lord of the Rings — who crack jokes and compete for the attention of a Russian maiden, named, appropriately enough, “Olga.” If in Lord of the Rings, it’s mainly the ruling class who get all the romantic subplots, in Alexander Nevsky it’s the common people. Even in the right-wing populist Braveheart, it’s still the hero who gets the woman, but here Nevsky is austere, above such petty concerns. Eisenstein, unlike a Hollywood film maker, has no need to give his leading man a love interest. But he gives Vasili Buslai and Gavrilo Oleksich two, the second being the daughter of a Russian boyer who was murdered by the knights in Pskov and who, like Eowyn from Return of the King, disguises herself as a man to ride into battle.

We also meet a pair of collaborators, depicted not as Trotsky or Bukharin, but simply as prosperous merchants who spout American style neoliberalism. There is no society, one of the collaborators says, only individuals and families. “Every man for himself. Home is where the hearth is.”

What’s striking about Alexander Nevsky compared to Star Wars or Lord of the Rings is its rationalism, its focus on class, not mysticism. There is no magical thinking. Nevsky beats the Teutonic Knights not because, like Aragorn, he can summon the dead or wield a magical sword, but because he’s willing to call on the people to rise up en masse against the invader. Alexander Nevsky may vilify the Catholic Church, but the Russian people don’t beat the Germans because of the superiority of the Orthodox religion. The film is not anti-religion. But, unlike Vladimir Putin, Nevsky neither makes an alliance with nor receives a blessing from the Orthodox church. There’s no hero priest fighting with the Russians against the Germans. Nevsky doesn’t pray. The film has an Aragorn but no Gandolf. What’s more, even the Battle of the Ice, while it does have Nevsky engaging in single combat against the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, features stolid Russian peasants with axes, taking down European chivalry in a workmanlike manner. It’s a proletarian, not an aristocratic victory.

So, while Alexander Nevsky may indeed, be as much of a film about Russian nationalism as it is about communist revolution, it’s more in line with the American nationalism of a World War II movie from the age of the liberal New Deal than it is in line with the aristocratic mysticism of a Star Wars or a Lord of the Rings. I’m not sure what Putin would make of Alexander Nevsky. Stalin, apparently, got to review it pre-release, and made only one cut, a scene where the Russian army gets drunk. It’s easy to see why he liked it. Nikolay Cherkasov is far and away a more charismatic figure than Viggo Mortenson. This is the guy who showed have played Aragorn, or, at least, someone like him. Nevsky embodies cool, collected authority, something Stalin, a notorious paranoid, probably aspired to. The traitors and collaborators are unable to demoralize him him, not because of his personal superiority, but because he trusts his subordinates. “Buslai would never surrender,” he says to one of the villains as he contemptuously tosses him aside.

Indeed, however much it’s aged, however badly Mosfilm may have bungled the audio, Alexander Nevsky still makes me long for an American epic, rooted not in mysticism and imaginary creatures designed to be made into toys and marketed to children, but in American history.