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Ivan the Terrible is either two films or 2/3s of one, since there was supposed to be a third installment. Certainly the two completed parts are of a piece and can be discussed together. They remain controversial, partly because of the question of whether Ivan is meant as a surrogate for Joseph Stalin. There are also aesthetic controversies. Director Sergei Eisenstein was famous (and hugely influential) for didactically insisting that montage (editing) was essential to cinematic expression. Yet Ivan is performance-centered and executed in an elaborately mannered, theatrical style in which nothing is spontaneous.

If the results are nobody’s idea of casual entertainment, they can still fascinate and not only in speculation about whether Eisenstein was thumbing his nose at Stalin. Ivan is depicted as a bloody, nearly psychopathic tyrant surrounded by an army of loyal spies. If that sounds like a reasonable facsimile of Stalin, the very blatancy of the analogy is a good argument against seeing it that way because it is difficult to believe the Soviet thought police would not have recognized the parallels. To confuse the question even further, part one received the Stalin Prize, while part two was not released for ten years!

The political and aesthetic issues cannot be separated because Eisenstein had previously run afoul of the nomenklatura for his excessive “formalism,” i.e., elaborate, experimental technique in preference to naturalistic methods. Thus, the films’ slow pace can be taken as a betrayal of his earlier theories in submission to political hacks. Eisenstein insisted, however, that acting involved montage just as much as the picture-based editing of his earlier work like Battleship Potemkin. For him, montage was a general principle, not just a matter of the juxtaposition of images.*

The arch-theatrical acting style may be the hardest aspect of the films for contemporary audiences to accept. The actors are heavily made-up, make no effort to seem “real,” frequently freeze in awkward poses and resort to strained, artificial behavior. To the extent that the acting is consistent and calls attention to itself, however, one suspects that we are supposed to be aware of it as acting in what formalists call “laying bare the device.”

As for the putative subject, the most you learn about Russian history is that Ivan used brutal methods to overcome oligarchical resistance to the creation of the modern state. Since Ivan’s boyar antagonists are villains who were born bad and exist only to prove it, we never question such teleological hindsight for either accuracy or plausibility. Which leads back to the question of the film’s attitudes toward Stalin, because Ivan is shown ultimately as being as much the victim as the perpetrator of his policies. The horrific world Ivan inhabits (evocatively rendered as a nightmare in the famous color sequences in part two) is his own creation. In that sense, strange, twisted and exaggerated as it is, Eisenstein’s unrealistic vision provides the most penetrating kind of realism. *See “Word and Image” in The Film Sense.