Due to the intensity of its anguished and baroque surfaces, its radical reconstruction of spatial dimensions, and its cartoonish, sometimes grotesque approach to performance and film dramaturgy, Sergei Eisenstein’s unfinished trilogy Ivan the Terrible (1944-46) – the Soviet master’s final work, one of the prime glories of the cinema – may be plausibly considered one of the most idiosyncratic and extreme examples of film style. This cinematic diptych, a kind of demented freak-out which scholar Joan Neuberger has aptly called “a key event in the history of Soviet art,” represents an ultimate rejection on the part of its author of a montage-based aesthetic principle which Eisenstein himself helped to formulate – a kind of theoretical approach to editing which reaches its logical culmination in the extended battle passages of Eisenstein’s first sound feature, Alexander Nevsky (1938). With Ivan, Eisenstein seems to be communicating to the viewer primarily through the formal excesses and ornate visual textures of his images, rather than through an ideological friction between two or more images, a heady technique that he deployed with aplomb in his silent work.
But although the Ivan films do possess a powerful abstract beauty, they also contain much more than that – beneath their layered and detailed flowering of hardcore expressionism lies a richly paradoxical conception of political leadership which has been interpreted by critics as everything from a celebratory form of historical pageantry, to a critique of Stalinist propaganda, to an autobiographical self-interrogation on the part of the filmmaker himself. For certain ideological reasons, including the suggestion of homoerotic and communist subtexts, the film remains a somewhat controversial work, and it was the last of Eisenstein’s films to be fully embraced by critics and programmers. (It was even included in Harry and Michael Medved’s 1980 book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.) For those of us interested in understanding the possibilities of film aesthetics, this inexhaustible work – which seems to straddle the line between biography and horror – demands to be seen under the best possible circumstances, and a free screening of both parts on 35mm prints at the IU Cinema this November represents a major cultural event for Midwestern filmgoers.
If one takes as a jumping-off point critic Dave Kehr’s claim that Eisenstein is “one of only a handful of film artists who can be said to have transformed the medium at its most basic level, to have a found a new way of seeing” – a distinction that Kehr extends only to Griffith, Murnau, Bresson, and Tati – then one must concede that any serious discussion of Ivan should be rooted in its remarkable visual design, which might plausibly be traced back to a few key antecedents, most notably the Germanic expressionism of silent cinema and the nauseating materialism of Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934). One of the more striking photographic elements in Ivan is its imbalanced configuration of the size of objects within the frame, as well as of the spatial coordinates between these objects. At certain moments in the film, Ivan (Nikolay Cherkasov) takes up a great deal more compositional space than the characters surrounding him; this kind of self-conscious distortion of the scale of figures in relation to one another sometimes resembles illuminated manuscripts of the Medieval period. At other moments, Ivan’s body appears to be at odds with the set itself, such as when he has to lower himself to enter through a great archway in his imperial fortress.
Occasionally, Eisenstein’s mise-en-scene appears radically sparse, with the arrangement of bodies and décor forming striking geometric patterns atop the surrounding negative space. These deliberately imaginative and cryptic visual details – along with the inclusion of a ravishing color sequence toward the end of Part II – suggest a definite break from the state-mandated agenda of “social realism” within the Stalinist period, and they also help to situate Ivan within a broader context of art history. The litany of grotesqueries on display undergo a kind of pictorial “flattening,” a synthesis of Pop Art comic strips and Medieval aesthetics which privileges short, vivid graphics over an illusion of depth.
One of the primary criticisms that Ivan detractors have leveraged against the film is related to its notably bold performance style: the acting has been derided as hypertheatrical and campy. It’s true, of course, that the lead actors in this ultra-stylish chamber piece – most notably Nikolay Cherkasov as Ivan, Serafima Birman as his wicked aunt Efrosinia, and Pavel Kadochnikov as her feeble son Vladimir – perform in a very stylized, mannered way which might be described as deliberately histrionic at best or deliriously ham-fisted at worst. Though this reflexive, highly composed approach to film dramaturgy may be very far removed from the more fashionably naturalistic acting styles of today, I would like to put forth a kind of counterargument: that the performative excesses on display in these films make sense and become quite powerful in relation to other aspects of the artwork. In the same way that small, casual gestures in a Howard Hawks movie may be imbued with impressive, codified meanings within the context of their narratives and genres, the operatic nature of dramatic movements here take on an unstable intensity within Eisenstein’s baroque realm of textures, shadows and surfaces. The main action of the proceedings, which might feel ridiculous or contrived in the hands of a lesser artist, here becomes a kind of heightened political theatre through a careful marriage of drama and design.
The thematic concerns undergirding Ivan’s status as political biography are somewhat more complicated, and a matter of some debate among critics and historians. It would be difficult to deny the notion that the character of Ivan is lionized as a kind of mythic, heroic figure at various points in the narrative, and this becomes most clear during his tentative triumph over the boyars and subsequent formation of the Oprichniki at the end of Part I. These details, which might suggest a process of glorification, have been interpreted by some as submerged Stalinist hagiography – the Soviet Premier commissioned the film and closely aligned himself with Ivan. Ultimately, though, Ivan seems to be an isolated figure, alone in his eccentricities and ruthless thrust toward unchallenged power. The films’ treatment of political images and of the cultural symbols associated with leadership remain largely paradoxical and finally ambivalent. The sheer amount of detail and ideas present in the material – both aesthetically as well as ideologically – is part of what makes Ivan a work that seems to change with us upon revisiting its unique embarrassment of riches.
Sergei Eisenstein is the subject of the President’s Choice series this fall at the IU Cinema. Both parts of Ivan the Terrible will be screened in 35mm on Sunday, November 10, and his 1927 silent film October (Ten Days that Shook the World) screens on Monday, December 2.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He studies literature, and has been a habitué of the local film revival scene since he moved to Bloomington a few years ago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.