Eisenstein and Ivan the Terrible


A couple of weeks ago, LACMA screened new prints of Sergei Eisenstein’s last film, Ivan the Terrible, parts I and II.  I hadn’t seen it in years, so it was a special delight to view its baroque excess on the big screen.  The film has been criticized for its pictorial bombast and lack of the kind of “dialectical montage” that made Eisenstein esteemed around the world; in his entry in Richard Roud’s Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, Noël Burch grumbles, “the straightforwardness of the montage . . . underlines the kinship between this film and the most archaic forms of opera.” But the film’s violent clash of tones has prompted critics such as J. Hoberman to describe it, not only as opera, but also as a “moving painting,” a bizarre fusion of historical epic and chamber drama, and even a “mutant kabuki show,” while citing the influences of artists as diverse as El Greco and Walt Disney.  The film may not feature dialectical montage, but it is certainly a testament to a dialectic that smashes together a jumble of tones to evoke a startlingly ambiguous portrait of Russia’s first formal Tsar that is equally eulogistic and damning.

Consider the still above, with Ivan (Nikolai Cherkasov) looking every bit the imposing Star Trek Klingon, and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s assertion that Ivan the Terrible is the “greatest Flash Gordon movie ever made” seems wholly appropriate. Eisenstein was a lifelong illustrator (check out this handsome Sketchbook 1914 “Internet project”), and in Eisenstein at Work, Jay Leyda and Zina Voynow document some of the hundreds of personal drawings and designs he made for the film; according to makeup artist Vasili Goryunov:

“Eisenstein had an extraordinary sensitivity for the proper proportions of the human body. In the appearance of each character he sought for the unity of the whole. Early in our work he asked me, ‘Have you noticed that Cherkasov’s torso and arms do not harmonize with the shape of his head? It actually should have a shape like this.”

Eisenstein then drew a sketch similar to the one he drew below (which Goryunov inelegantly compared to a cucumber). Leyda and Voynow include several of Eisenstein’s visual inspirations for Ivan, including a tree outside his apartment window and John Barrymore’s makeup for 1920’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (Ivan’s gradual physical transformation over the planned trilogy would have become most severe in Part III, of which only a few publicity shots remain.)


The Russian scholar Yuri Tsivian offers a fascinating audiovisual essay on the Criterion DVD (part of the Eisenstein: The Sound Years box set) that can be viewed here:

I love that Tsivian begins by saying he wants to address the film’s visual vocabulary “not to exhaust it, but rather to encourage the viewer to take over the next time he or she decides to watch the film.” This isn’t caginess, but a genuine desire to allow Eisenstein’s dialectic to do its work, a contradictory and polyphonic experience designed to stimulate the viewer’s intellect. Writing in The Film Sense, Eisenstein maintained that “The strength of the method resides also in the circumstance that the spectator is drawn into a creative act in which individuality is not subordinated to the author’s individuality, but is opened up throughout the process of fusion with the author’s intention.”

Tsivian’s examples of motifs and repeated compositions are a helpful entryway to the film’s often bizarre staging, realized with the help of ace cinematographer Andrei Moskvin, who filmed the interior scenes. (Potemkin‘s Eduard Kazimirovich Tissé filmed the few but key exteriors.) Moskvin was a co-founder of the 1922 FEKS (Factory of the Eccentric Actor) movement that, according to IMAGO’s Making Pictures: A Century of European Cinematography, called on filmmakers “to reject the canons of ‘vulgar’ naturalism for original expressiveness.” Some readers might be familiar with Moskvin’s contributions to the films of Grigori Kozintsev (another FEKS co-founder) until his death during the production of Kozintsev’s extraordinary Hamlet (1964). More from IMAGO:


“In the key interior scenes of Ivan’s political struggle, the dramatic progression is supported by Moskvin’s arrangement of lights. When Ivan decides to contact Queen Elizabeth with the gift of a chessboard, Moskvin employs shadow projection on a giant scale. Removing the lens on a large open arc floodlight, he increases its spread to over 90 degrees. Ivan’s shadow massively dwarfs that of his envoys, so that their exit is seen in shadows filing past, like chessmen tilted up against the wall. Moskvin uses similarly even light on a back wall when Ivan rallies the populace who have stormed his palace. Here the shadows spiking the wall are those of the surrounding masses. Dressed in white, Ivan struts in the center, and in contrast to the backdrop is lit with striking brilliance. The effect achieved is in direct contrast to that of the chessboard sequence.”

In addition to his artistry with montage, Eisenstein’s highly developed pictorial sense deserves continued exploration.

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