Take a Drink: for plotting and sedition
Take a Drink: for epic or unique facial hair
Take a Drink: for silhouettes
Take a Drink: whenever Ivan earns his nickname
Do a Shot: “malinki… o bolshoi”
Do a Shot: for the Fall of Kazan (aka, where I live now)
By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
Renowned Russian director Sergei Eisenstein had more difficulties to contend with than your average filmmaker. He came to prominence as his nation went through a revolution and total societal overhaul, and had to navigate a whole range of politics to get his films made. His final masterwork, a three part biography of Ivan the Terrible, was made both in the midst of World War II and under the gaze of Stalin. How it turned out shows the range of ups and downs making films in a dictatorial state presents.
Bringing a whole new meaning to “murdered by the critics”
Ivan the Terrible: Part I opens on young Ivan Vasilevich’s coronation, where he proudly declaims the Boyar ruling class and his intentions of making Russia a strong unified state, free of European meddling, no matter the costs or consequences. Yep, it’s easy to see to see how Stalin (delusionally) identified with that.
Eisenstein approaches this history by way of Shakespeare and Carl Theodor Dreyer, and largely succeed in melding these influences into a rich whole. Ivan’s greatest obstacles don’t come from without, but within his own court, including his two former bosom buddies, one of whom loved his chosen bride, and the other who decides to join the Orthodox Church instead of take part in Ivan’s dismantling of the status quo. Even more insidious is Ivan’s Aunt, the very Lady MacBeth-like Efrosinia, who desires the throne for her simpleton son and has the support of the Boyars, rich landlords whose power Ivan is hamstringing.
Hmm… wonder if she’s evil…
The acting conforms to this classical, larger than life interpretation- all booming speeches, devilishly arched eyebrows, and clutched breasts while swooning, supported by honest-to-goodness classical composer Sergei Prokofiev’s booming orchestral score. The lavish costumes and sumptuously decorated sets also strike the right balance between historical fidelity and dramatic aspirations.
The real star, though, is Eisenstein’s direction. He’d clearly been taking some notes from German Expressionism, particularly Dreyer, the artist behind The Passion of Joan of Arc, and here created a world of shadows and sharp angles. He alternates between precisely framed wide shots, masterfully illuminated and alternately cloaked in darkness, and expressive, often grotesque closeups. Every frame is fascinating, but that’s no surprise. After all, Eisenstein wrote the book on filmmaking.
Well, a book on filmmaking.
This film is rather propagandistic, but that was pretty much unavoidable considering the circumstances. A bigger flow is how the film jumps right into Ivan’s coronation. It’s a bold choice, but hamstrings the Shakespearean ambition of the plot. It’s hard to care about Ivan’s friends’ inner conflict and betrayal when the only support for their relationship with him in the script is “because I said so.”
The first party curried Stalin’s favor, winning the (coveted?) Stalin Prize. That its legacy has endured far beyond that phrase’s relevancy shows the quality of the craftsmanship from one of cinema’s greatest, working at the height of his powers.