(Originally published on the Examiner in October 2009, this review has been moved here in its entirety.)
Over the course of two films, released fourteen years apart due to Soviet censorship, legendary director Sergei Eisenstein chronicles the infamous Russian tsar's ascension to and assertion of power. Ivan (Nikolai Cherkasov) begins as a handsome young prince, crowned at the opening of Part I while the corrupt nobles whisper conspiracies under his very nose. By the end of Part II, Ivan is a wizened, shrewd tyrant, foiling an assassination plot by using a simple-minded relative as bait. In between, he leads troops into battle, throws decadent parties, loses a wife to poison, and is betrayed repeatedly until his paranoia makes him wise beyond his years - and authoritarian beyond his foes' wildest expectations.
The film is a masterpiece - the above plot description guides the action, but the essence of the movie is in the extreme close-ups Eisenstein lavishes upon the bizarre faces of his players, the lavish yet cleverly designed set pieces (dinners with huge white, and later black, swan statues; a diplomatic detente in which the figures are placed on the checkered floor like chess-pieces), and the magnificent score contributed by Prokofiev. One should not expect a historically accurate recreation, a politically correct manifesto, nor even an especially straightforward narrative; to enjoy the movie one has to appreciate the campy effects Eisenstein employs and recognize that their campiness is not really unintentional. Even Ivan the Terrible seems in on the joke, half-flirting with an effeminate usurper just to get his way, wickedly grinning as he poses for Eisenstein's flamboyant camera. Part II is even better than Part I, if only because it further abandons the dutiful rollout of Ivan's rise to power for the immersion in his decadent, paranoid, baroque milieu.
Eisenstein had been one of the signature pioneers of Soviet silent film, when his films focused on the power of "montage" - rapidly cut sequences which often employed visual metaphors and rhyming images. Ivan the Terrible employs a wider variety of tricks, but the execution is still tight, controlled, and rhythmic - not in a cold fashion, but bursting with enthusiastic passion. As Stalin clamped his iron fist down on the Marxist state and narrowed the range of the arts, preferring drab socialist realism to inventive avant-garde agitprop, it was hard to see where Eisenstein fit in this totalitarian vision. He was freed up to create Alexander Nevsky, a heroic history film and his first collaboration with Prokofiev, in the late 30s. But the film's anti-German slant became a mark against it with Stalin's ever-shifting political line and it was a good five years before Eisenstein was cautiously given permission to proceed with Ivan, seen as a tribute to the latter-day despot. How times change! Suddenly ostentatious monarchism, nationalistic xenophobia, and subservience of the masses to the rule of one man were celebrated in the name of the Leninist revolution. Apparently, Stalin approved of Part I, was dismayed by Part II (whose release was delayed until after his death), and canceled Part III. Eisenstein's career was over, he died in captivity, and the Soviet cinema entered its deepest deep freeze, only to be alleviated with Joseph the Terrible's own demise. Today, some see Ivan the Terrible as a Stalinist apologia, while others find in it a subversive attack on the dictator. Perhaps both viewpoints are correct, which only adds to the attraction of this warped classic.