Friday, December 9, 2011


When I was a kid the local PBS station regularly ran the then-canonical works of early global cinema: the German Expressionist silent films and the Soviet montage movies. The station occasionally ran sound films, including the talking pictures of Sergei Eisenstein, the Soviet montage pioneer of Battleship Potemkin fame. While my memories of his Aleksandr Nevskii are, unsurprisingly, much stronger, I feel certain that I first encountered his Ivan Groznii at this time. I have stronger memories of Part I from frequent showings on A&E, way back when the cable channel took the "Arts" part of its name most seriously. Oddly, I can't remember the channel running Part II, but the sequel always lagged behind the original more than normally. As film historians know, Stalin was a big fan of Part I, but had Part II put on the shelf and halted production on Part III, mainly because the sequel seemed to make Ivan IV ("Groznii" signifies something more like "awe-inspiring" than the modern sense of "terrible") simultaneously weak and vicious while discrediting by analogy the dictator's own project of consolidating absolute power. He famously complained that Eisenstein had made the Orpichniki, Ivan's corps of enforcers, into something like the Ku Klux Klan, the complaint being phrased in a way that proved Stalin no fan of The Birth of a Nation. Curiously, the despot suppressed the film but did not destroy it, and within a few years after Stalin's demise Part II was finally authorized for release. Its world premiere came in 1958, fourteen years after Part I appeared and ten years after Eisenstein's death. Turner Classic Movies recently ran the two parts back to back, and I took advantage of the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the original and finally see the sequel in its entirety.

Part I reconfirmed my years-old impression that it was a stylistic step backward for Eisenstein after the epic power of Aleksandr Nevskii.  It's an unsettlingly mixed bag, combining some of the most brilliant and powerful images in cinema with some of the worst. Deepening his collaboration with composer Sergei Prokofiev, Eisenstein envisaged the Ivan films in operatic rather than epic terms. The performances, especially that of star Nikolai Cherkassov, are far more theatrically stylized than even the bombast of Nevskii, and Part II is very nearly a musical in its reliance on song, dance and performance. At the same time, Eisenstein, filming Part I in 1943, is still thinking like a silent film director. He too often forces gestures and facial expressions to do the work of dialogue when speech could and should have done the work better. My case in point is a painfully extended two-shot of Lyudmila Tselikovskaya as the Tsarina and Mikhail Nazvanov as Prince Kurbsky, Ivan's vacillating vassal and would-be lover of the Tsarina. Ivan himself is on the brink of death from fever, and Kurbsky is making his case for himself as her next husband and Tsar. Into the frame looms Serafima Birman as Euphrosina, Ivan's wicked aunt, who wants her idiot son Vladimir to succeed to the throne. Interminably, the three actors roll their eyes at each other, the two women on either side of Nazvanov leaning closer together to intensify their staredown, while none of them says a word. Instead of Prokofiev, the sort of sound effects you might hear on the Cartoon Network seem more appropriate at this moment. It's unnaturalistic without any real artistic compensation; Eisenstein put too much faith in the ability of facial expressions to tell the story. He might have gotten away with it in an actual silent film -- it would at least have looked less freakishly awkward. Here, however, it marks him as a director who hasn't yet caught up with the times.

Were these actors ever tempted to kill a take by turning a baleful eye on the director?
He certainly deserved it.

Fortunately, the good moments outweigh the awful in Part I, which covers more time in more episodic fashion than the sequel. The main story thread is Ivan's effort to centralize power in his hands and break the traditional power of the boyar nobility, which is shown to have crippled Russia in the face of ambitious enemies to the west and east. The main story in movie terms is Cherkassov's intensely physical performance, an extreme departure from his relatively standard heroics as Aleksandr Nevskii. The influence of two John Barrymore films on Cherkassov's look and manner -- the silent Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and the talkie Svengali, have been widely noted. The Russian actor isn't impersonating Barrymore, however; Eisenstein's inspiration seems to have been purely visual, though you could argue that Cherkassov's gradual transformation from golden youth (he was 40 when he filmed Part I) into goat-bearded, lank-limbed gargoyle echoes Barrymore's degeneration from Jekyll to Hyde. Ivan's theatricality is more justified than that of the other characters, since the Tsar is always "on," so to speak, and always playing to the farthest reaches of any crowd he finds. An absolute medieval monarch is a strangely perfect match for a director more or less committed to Communism throughout his career, but then again, look at what, or more excatly, who Bolshevism resulted in in Russia. Historical context and Hollywood influence aside, Cherkassov's performance still goes down as one of the greatest ever by a movie actor.

Part II, as I hinted, is a more concentrated narrative and more successful as drama. Eisenstein proves himself an effective if slow learner as he proves himself capable of building and sustaining tension through sound and image.  Early fears of anticlimax after Kurbsky abruptly disappears from the story (he was meant to return in Part III) are dispelled as Euphrosina makes her move to destroy Ivan and the Oprichniki in order to make a very unwilling Vladimir a pliant "boyar Tsar." Watching the story play out, I began to suspect that Stalin had been irked by the extent to which Eisenstein turns Vladimir, the Tsar's "worst enemy," into a tragically sympathetic character.

As the fool, Pavel Kadochnikov nearly steals the second half of the film from Cherkassov. As a  guilelessly infantile antagonist, he pitches the part somewhere between Harry Langdon and John Cazale, readily revealing once plied with drink that some folks are out to get rid of his pal the Tsar. "And do you know who they're going to replace you with," he asks in the one truly funny moment in the picture, "You'll never guess!" Meanwhile, the oily Ivan is cooly preparing to send Vlad to his death, dressed in Ivan's own robes to confuse the assassin known to be lying in wait. The slow buildup to Vladimir's inevitable destruction anticipates Coppola's technique in the Godfather films, much as Vlad himself somewhat anticipates Fredo. Eisenstein's use of color heightens the tension as Vladimir trembles at the exit of Ivan's exceptionally colorful Oprichnik party pit while the assassin waits back in the black and white world of the rest of the movie -- the lurid color becomes Vlad's last security at the brink of the abyss.

Better still, Eisenstein knows how to top himself. The climax comes not when Vladimir is whacked, but when his mother, having seen someone in royal robes go down, charges in to declare the country liberated, practically kicking the corpse. The director knows how to milk this for all it's worth, not letting Euphrosina discover her mistake until after the living Ivan shows himself, letting her have a moment to ponder who that might be on the floor before she goes mad from the truth. That last act leaves me leaning toward Part II over Part I as the better film, but it's still a close call. Both films have their false notes but they're probably to be expected from an unorthodox director's unconventional approach to historical drama. While all Stalinist art has been said to really have an audience of one, I think the rest of us can still find something of value in the Ivan films. Even under the thumb of the dictator, Eisenstein made movies that are unmistakably his -- and the dictator even liked one of them. Whether that's a triumph or not, history must judge.

No comments: