For many, Eisenstein’s name is likely to evoke hazy memories of a college film-studies course and the famous Odessa Steps montage from Battleship Potemkin. He’s the one who believed that film editing was a dialectical process, putting oppositions in tension to create new meaning. (Extra points if you remember that his films feature the masses as heroes and “typological acting,” in which performers express a type like “noble worker” rather than a psychologically complex individual.)
If that’s the extent of your Eisenstein knowledge, his wild epic Ivan the Terrible will come as a shock. The pacing of the editing is regal, with none of the flash-frenzy of Potemkin, Strike or October. The use of angular composition remains, but now raised to the level of fetish. And the film unabashedly celebrates Czar Ivan IV as the hero of Russia. To all of which you might reasonably reply, WTF?
The Ivan films, the first two parts of a planned trilogy, are often explained as a product of the Stalinist era and particularly the World War II context in which the project was conceived. While early Soviet art theory resisted the celebration of the individual, by the late 1930s Soviet art regularly represented certain historical figures as heroes, though often with the facts of history carefully shaped toward appropriate Communist values. A strong, ruthless leader who rules brutally? Fine, as long as he is brutal toward the rich nobles and does his dirty deeds for the betterment of the Russian people.
That adjective Russian lies at the heart of Ivan the Terrible. The historical Ivan (1530–1584) expanded his domain at an amazing rate, absorbing huge swaths of land to the east, south and west. He also cut into the power of the Russian nobility as his own power increased. All of this occurred against a backdrop of court intrigue that recalls Shakespeare’s histories (assassinations, switching sides, complicated genealogies).
For Stalin, Ivan was a perfect hero to trot out for the Soviet masses: a leader known for his ruthlessness but tied to national identity. By the 1930s, Eisenstein had embraced the changing tastes in Soviet art.
Eisenstein tackles the material with an aggressive stylization that recalls nothing so much as German Expressionism. Figures skulk down low-ceilinged hallways, casting absurdly giant shadows against the wall. The acting is often compared to that of the silent era, but Cherkasov’s performance as Ivan rises to a level that feels more at home in the avant-garde theater. He glares with lunatic intensity, then turns suddenly to strike a new pose. Eisenstein often puts him in an angled profile, the better to emphasize the line from his long pointy beard to the back of his ovoid skull. That crazy head seen in profile, along with the bizarre architecture (cavernous spaces connected by archways so low that the characters have to hunch over to move through them), are the signature images of the film. And they serve as a helpful entry point for understanding what Eisenstein is up to. At key moments, Cherkasov’s Ivan arches his back and raises his head to the heavens, as if posing for history in a moment of pure expressive ecstasy. He’s not quite human in these moments: more like a mythic icon. And his elevation to icon is all the more impressive when contrasted with the palace intrigue of his enemies, neatly symbolized by all those weird low spaces through which the characters creep like rodents. In the Ivan films, Eisenstein may not rely on the vigorous montage of his early work, but his presence is felt in the sheer scale of what he attempts.