Ranking: #7/111

Director: Sergei Eisenstein (Russia) 

Genre: Epic Historical Drama

Ivan Grozniy (Ivan the Terrible or Ivan the Formidable) is a two-part historical epic written and directed by Sergei Eisenstein. It is the biopic of Ivan IV Vasilyevich (1530-1584), who rose from his position of Grand Prince of Moscow to become the first Tsar of all Russia from 1547-1584. It was the great Russian director’s final film and was commissioned by Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. It was made during the stresses of World War 2.

Russia’s first Tsar, who united Russia and who established the seat of government as an autocracy, was viewed by his contemporaries as a complex person. On the one hand, he was charismatic, intelligent and devout, following Eastern Orthodox Christianity, especially in regard to enforcing the divine right of rulers. But he could also be paranoid, subject to fits of rage and ruthless.

I have focused on Part 1 as a masterpiece, with Part 11 failing to add much value and succumbing to some repetitiveness. It is possible to view Part 1 as a self-contained work of art.

Eisenstein began work on the project in 1940 and spent two years doing research. He developed hundreds of drawings to help him visualise each sequence of the screenplay. Music for the film was composed by Sergei Prokofiev, acknowledged as one of the major composers of the 20th century.

Part I begins with Ivan’s Christian coronation as the first Russian Tsar. It is a most stately, beautiful and evocative opening sequence, with a sense of expansive geometric space, achieved through depth of field in many of the images. The icons and the frescoes add detail to the interior. I found this sequence to be a bewitching textured depiction.

By becoming absolute ruler, Ivan had effectively ended the power of the boyars, or high-ranking nobles (who were second in rank only to the ruling princes).  Eisenstein shows the faces of the grumbling and plotting boyars, who resent the coronation, before we even see Ivan. The director often used metonymy (part for the whole) in his films and the faces he focuses on in close-ups express inner character, as well as their political posturing. This is a smart narrative ploy, setting the scene for future conflict in the narrative of his reign as Tsar. He will face enemies from within and from without. There is a competition for power that will turn deadly.

We first see Ivan from behind, as he’s about to be crowned. Then we see the crown, the sceptre and the orb with a cross, the symbols of his kingly role. Then he turns around and we see a fresh, young, handsome face. As part of the ceremony, dozens of shining coins are poured over him, as if anointing him with wealth to go with his power. It is a striking image. This scene is full of visual splendour.

After being crowned, Ivan gives a speech in which he sets out his plan for Russia. He will curb the boyars, he will establish a permanent army, he will redistribute the wealth of the church. Then he tears up as he explains how he will take back lands and maritime cities stolen by Russia’s enemies and unite his people against the tartars. He is portrayed as a messianic but absolute ruler. There is a strong sense of his historic mission, which is a calling to unite Russia.

The palace itself is presented as quite claustrophobic. The purpose of this is to emphasise the loneliness and isolation of leadership, especially when there are so many enemies.

Later, the wedding of the Tsar and Anastasia Romanovna takes place and Eisenstein does add to his biopic a love story, one which ends tragically with Anastasia’s death.

At one point, a giant shadow of Ivan thrown on the wall behind him represents his growing stature and greatness as a ruler. There is also a fascinating diagonal split screen contrasting Ivan and his plotters. One of them is his jealous cousin, Vladimir of Staritsa, who is in love with the Tsarina. The main plotter, though, is Vladimir’s mother and Ivan’s aunt, the suitably evil-looking Evfrosinia Staritskaia, usually clad in menacing black robes.

The spiritual and political dimensions of this history are brought to the fore with some immensely creative imagery. We follow the war in Livonia, the siege of Kazan (which took place in 1552) and other battles as the Tsar fights his enemies. We also see flashbacks which show some of the tragic history which might have caused Ivan’s paranoia, such as when his mother and her lover were murdered by boyars.  

The film’s sets and period costumes are incredible. At times, the viewer is immersed in a veritable symphony of quintessential Eisensteinian images.

After his victory at the siege of Kazan, the Tsar falls gravely ill. It looks like he is on his deathbed. He receives the last rites. He appoints his infant son, Dmitri, as his heir and warns his relatives to ensure there is a single ruler who keeps Russia united. Evfrosinia Staritskaya, however, urges the others to swear allegiance to her son, Vladimir. Ivan then collapses. Everyone thinks he is now dead. The Tsarina says, though, “Do not bury a man before he is dead” and her premonition proves correct. The Tsar lives on (“The holy sacrament has cured me!”), almost as if he has been resurrected from a near-death experience.

Shortly afterwards, though, the Tsarina falls ill and Evfrosinia, the evil matriarch of the boyars, enters the palace with a cup of wine which has been laced with poison, placing it in Anastasia’s room. Later, we see her lying in state in the cathedral, with Ivan mourning next to her body. Ivan believes God is punishing him for his failures as a ruler. He doubts himself and decides to abdicate and only return if it is the will of his people. A procession of people gathers to call him back to be their ruler. He resolves to return to Moscow and to continue his mission.

Eisenstein has created an engaging, elegant film which offers a nuanced portrait of a major figure in Russia’s history. He has invested some of his personal ambiguity towards Ivan the Terrible into this multi-layered representation (Eisenstein’s father was a bully, whom his mother abandoned when he was a boy of ten, and it is clear he has mixed feelings about the despotic side of the Tsar’s character).

As a visionary filmmaker, he has conceived of his historic story through images. And it is the combined power of his narrative and his cinematographic imagery which make this film timeless.