Ivan the Terrible Parts One and Two (1942 and 1944)

“It is one of those works that has proceeded directly to the status of Great Movie without going through the intermediate stage of being a good movie. I hope earnest students of cinema will forgive me when I say every serious movie lover should see it – once.”

‘Ivan the Terrible’, a two part film directed by Sergei Eisenstein in 1942 and 1944 is a theatrical, bombastic and, at times, hyperbolic biopic of the sixteenth century Tsar. The first part was released to wide acclaim and met the approval of Stalin, the second, which depicts Ivan purging his court of traitors and threats to his crown, unsurprisingly did not appeal to Stalin who detected the whiff of political allegory.  I was surprised at how much fun it was. Together the two films make one long story at over three hours, but Eisenstein’s unbelievable visual imagination and skilled mastery of the cinematic technique, coupled with some truly eccentric performances make this a compelling experience. You never quite know what you’re going to see next, and in a way this is distracting from the story: halfway through the second part, Eisenstein experiments with colour, but unlike Tarkovsky in ‘Stalker‘, this seems to be done just because he can rather than for any narrative reason. But the vast and cavernous sets, the expressionistic use of shadows, and the close-ups of the strange, expressive faces of his actors combine to make this is a movie with a strange attraction. This all seems to be a hangover from Eisenstein’s silent movies, especially his focus on the animalistic body-language of the characters to tell the story, I challenge you, for example, to tear your eyes away from the creepy, bird-like portrayal of Ivan by Nikolai Cherkasov. As with ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’, however, it is the fact that these movies were made whilst Europe and Asia burned that adds to their mystique. And like the French movie, there is a sense of resistance in the very bones of Eisenstein’s films. The fact that Stalin approved of the first film suggests that the director managed to pull off a dangerous magic trick.

Would I recommend it? Yes! Roger Ebert recommended seeing it, but only once. I think I enjoyed it more, perhaps because I couldn’t help seeing it, as Ebert suggests it might better be seen, as a piece of high camp, but even so the fact that it openly seemed to mock Stalin gives it weight and significance. But in the end, it’s a film by Sergei Eisenstein, so why wouldn’t you want to see it?


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