Thursday, February 16, 2017

Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944)

A French poster of Ivan the Terrible.

Starring: Nikolai Cherkasov, Lyudmila Tselikovskaya, Serafima Birman

State Stalin Prize for cinema

On the other side of the globe from Hollywood lies America’s World War II allies and future aggressors, the Soviet Union, who has their own long and storied cinematic history. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin was an admirer of Ivan IV, better known in history as Ivan the Terrible, whose dream for a strong, united Russia led to the Tsar to be a notoriously stern and powerful leader. Identifying with Ivan IV, Stalin commission a grand motion picture directed and produced by one of the nation’s highest revered filmmakers to serve as a glorious reminder of Russia’s past to Soviet audiences.

Ivan the Terrible, Part 1 is a historical epic of Ivan IV of Russia’s early rule over his dream vast, singular Russian state, uniting many smaller tribes to form for a first time one nation. Beginning with the coronation of Ivan (Nikolai Cherkasov) as Tsar of all the Russias, Ivan proclaims his intended desires to unite and protect all of the lands of Russia. However many boyars, families of traditional feudal nobility, share their disdain for the proclaimed ruler of their many lands. This distain is most notably perceived in this film in Efrosinia (Serafima Birman), Ivan’s aunt who wishes her own son, Vladimir (Pavel Kadochnikov), to attain the throne. Boyar uprising, foreign enemies, squabbling amongst allies, and the murder of his wife Anastasia (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya) takes its toll on Ivan, making him question if he was incorrect about his own destiny. It is by the will of the people united to see Ivan rule that vindicates his purpose to be the man that will unite and protect the nation of Russia with renewed mind and focus.

Birman plays the primary antagonist of the feature.
Director Sergei Eisenstein brings with him his glorious use of shadows, creative, symbolic imagery, and moments of impressive vastness to deliver a sliver of the idea of just how Ivan the Terrible’s history impacted Russia. Molded in a matter that glorifies a man that helped frame Russia into the vast multicontinental nation that it would become, this motion picture takes the portion of his early reign and presents the man as a savior with a heart for the nation. It makes for a clean almost pious telling of a man’s story who ironically would be named Ivan the Terrible.

Joseph Stalin’s admiration of Ivan IV as a national hero in Russian history and his perceived parallel in leadership found Eisenstein’s passion to produce a vast feature about the man a desirable proposed production during World War II. With Sergei Eisenstein as the architect of such stirring Russian epics as Battleship Potemkin and October, he was commissioned to bring forth the next great Russian historical epic as writer/director/producer.

The picture is full of creative and dramatic imagery that reminds audiences of the days of silent features. The harsh use dark images contrasted the light, broad and sudden blocking of the actors, and the heavy reliance on characters acting with their eyes all make this feature as intimate as stage performance. However, the picture also contains scenes with hundred, if not thousands, of extras to bring home the scope of how this story effected an entire nation’s history.

When the picture was originally commissioned Eisenstein’s vision for sharing Ivan the Terrible would span beyond a singular feature film, initially planning on two large motion pictures. The first result is the picture we observe here in Ivan the Terrible, with no mention of “Part 1,” with the intention of a second feature to follow. As Ivan the Terrible received high praise from Joseph Stalin himself as well as Russian critics, Eisenstein began work on the second feature which expanded further in the filmmakers mind into what would hopefully be two sequels.

Wonderful use of dramatic shadows.
Fresh off receiving the State Stalin Prize in 1946 for his 1944 film, Sergei Eisenstein would finish and intended to release Ivan the Terrible, Part 2. This sequel however greatly displeased Stalin as it depicted the terrorism that Ivan inflicted during his reign. Unsatisfied with the representation of Ivan in Part 2 the motion picture was banned by Stalin withheld from release by proclamation. Meanwhile Part 3’s production would be halted indefinitely in earlier production. Following Stalin’s death in 1953 Ivan the Terrible, Part 2 would eventually see its banned removed and the picture was released in 1958, sadly ten years after the death of Sergei Eisenstein to lesser fanfare compared to Part 1. What little was shot of Part 3 had since been destroyed and without Eisenstein would never be completed.

Ivan the Terrible, Part 1 continues on as an example of the exhaustive work of one of Russia’s finest filmmakers from the first half of the 20th century. The richness of his filmmaking harkens back to an earlier time in motion pictures, but works stylistically well in this telling of one of Russia’s historical rulers. For a film made in a communist country during World War II this picture attempts to raise a sense of patriotism for a nation that would experience international strife for the next several decades.

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