Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
The DVD set from Criterion entitled Eisenstein: The Sound Years is as fine a film product as youll likely ever encounter. It presents the final three films directed by one of the most accomplished masters of cinema, Sergei Eisenstein. These three films, Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible Parts I and II, have circulated for years in less than satisfactory VHS versions that suffer from poor quality film surfaces as well as unsatisfactory sound quality. Considering that each of these films has a soundtrack written by the great Sergei Prokofiev, sound quality is of special importance for these films. The Criterion boxed set provides pristine transfers and restoration of the visual images resulting in far better prints than have existed for decades. Ive seen Alexander Nevsky both in the older VHS version and in the Criterion transfer and there is simply no comparison. Moreover, the sound quality is far superior. In addition, this boxed set includes one of the finest assortments of extras ever produced for a DVD release. The discs include an audio essay by Joan Neuberger concerning the history of Ivan the Terrible, an excellent analysis by Yuri Tsivian of Eisensteins visual language, a reconstruction of a sort of Eisensteins film Bezhin Meadow that was destroyed by Russian authorities, biographical material relating to Eisenstein, and scenes deleted from Ivan the Terrible, including a narrator prologue that translates as follows:
At the time when Charles V, Phillip II,
Catherine de Medici, The Duke of Alba, Henry VIII, and
Bloody Mary ruled in Europe
The bloody time of Inquisition stakes and
The massacre of St. Bartholomew
To the Grand Ducal throne of Moscow
Ascended this one who became the first Tsar
And Autocrat of all Russia
TSAR IVAN VASILIEVICH THE TERRIBLE
Alexander Nevsky: Brief Capsule Sergei Eisenstein was fresh off a series of devastating setbacks in the 1930s when he was asked by Stalin in 1938 to direct a film that would rouse the nationalism of the Russian people against the pending threat of Germany in the west. Eisenstein undertook the project with great enthusiasm and soon selected as the subject matter the story of Grand Duke Alexander Nevsky (1220-1263). Alexander had been given the honorific name of Nevsky after his exploits at the mouth of the River Neva against the Swedes in 1240. As the film opens, he is in self-imposed exile in a fishing village in remote Russia. Russia is threatened from the east by the Golden Horde and from the west by the German Teutonic Knights. Nevsky judges the latter threat the more crucial one since the Monguls seek only tributes while the Teutonic Knights are intent on destroying Russian life in the name of Catholicism. Nevsky is called on to help defend the last free western Russian city, the crucial trade center of Novgorod. Nevsky elects to attack rather than defend and rallies not only the forces of Novgorod and his own, but arms the peasantry as well. In one of the greatest battle scenes ever filmed, Nevsky defeats the Teutonic Knights on Lake Chudskoye. For a more complete discussion of his film, see my review at Alexander Nevsky.
Alexander Nevsky: Themes While Alexander Nevsky was a propaganda film in application, it is no more inherently propagandistic than many chest-pounding, red-white-and-blue films that emerge from Hollywood. Alexander Nevsky glorifies a great event in Russian history, even if the subject matter was expressly chosen because of the obvious parallels between the Teutonic Knights and the modern German threat that existed at the time of the films production. It is indisputably a great work of art.
Alexander Nevsky: Production Values Alexander Nevsky was Eisensteins first foray into sound film as well as his first venture into the epic style of filmmaking. He largely abandoned his earlier focus on close editing and montage for static cuts more conducive to an epic film. Cherkassov provided a charismatic performance as Alexander Nevsky. The soundtrack provided by Prokofiev is likely the finest ever for a film. Prokofiev later reorganized and fleshed out the music into a cantata that is among his finest compositions.
Ivan the Terrible: Historical Context Ivan IV (1530-1584) ruled from 1547 until his death and became the first ruler to be crowned Czar. He struggled against the Russian nobility (boyars) to centralize and consolidate power so that Russia could better defend itself against foreign threats and strengthen its opportunities for trade. Ivan is credited with modernizing the country, suppressing corruption, and ending the practice of arbitrary justice against the peasantry, by reducing the power of the boyars. He had military success to his east, defeating the Tartars, but damaged his country by an unsuccessful campaign to the west against Livonia that forced Russia into humiliating treaties with Sweden and Poland. He established the oprichnina a kind of secret police that were loyal only to the Czar. They wore black and rode black horses and were ruthless against the Czars enemies. As Ivans power grew, he gradually devolved into increasing paranoia, cruelty, and tyranny.
After Eisensteins success with Alexander Nevsky, he enthusiastically agreed when he was asked by Stalin to undertake next another film on a nationalist subject Ivan the Terrible. Ivan the Terrible was conceived by Eisenstein as a triology, but a heart attack in 1946 prevented him from completing the third part and most of what was filmed was destroyed. Part I, released in 1945, so pleased Stalin that Eisenstein was awarded the Stalin Award along with two of the performers (Nikolay Cherkasov and Serafima Birman), two of the cameramen, and Prokofiev. Part II, on the other hand, so infuriated Stalin that it was immediately banned and was not seen in Russia until 1958, five years after the death of Stalin and ten years after Eisensteins death. It first appeared internationally in 1959-60. Furthermore, Eisenstein was forced to offer the most abject of apologies: The sense of historical truth was betrayed by me in the second part of Ivan.
Ivan the Terrible: Brief Capsule Part I begins in 1547 with the magnificent coronation of Ivan, conducted in such a way that viewers are unable to see Ivans face until immediately after he is crowned as if to say that any history of Ivan that went before is irrelevant (although later in Part II we learn some of that history by flashback). Already the staunch opposition to his coronation is evident among the boyars, including his own aunt Euphronsinia (Serafima Birman) who hopes to see her dim-witted son Vladimir elevated to the throne. The boyars correctly recognize Ivan as a threat to their own power and privileges. At the wedding feast, a mod of peasants burst in while much of Moscow is in flames. The panic of the superstitious peasants had been incited by a group of boyars, the Staritskis, by causing church bells to plummet to the ground as if God were denouncing the new Czar. Ivan skillfully deflects the fear of the peasants with a combination of humor and implicit threat, likening the head of one of the peasants to a bell empty and easily cut down.
An envoy of Tartars arrives from their leader, Kazan khan, arrogantly declaring war on Moscow. Ivan puts his erstwhile friend Prince Andri Kurbsky (Mikhail Nazvanov) at the head of an army that marches on and subdues the Tartars capital city in Kazan, with the aid of cannon and gunpowder. On the return trip to Moscow, Ivan takes ill and seems near death. On what appears to be his deathbed, he pleads with the boyars to pledge fidelity to his infant son, Dmitri. He is betrayed by all, however, and even Kurbsky (who secretly covets Ivans beloved wife, Czaritsa Anastasia) wavers, though he recognizes Ivans impending recovery just soon enough to recoup his standing by disingenuously pledging to Dmitri. This earns him the leadership of the Russian forces that will attack Livonia.
Euphronsinia organizes a plot among the boyars aimed at breaking Ivans power by depriving him of resources and allies. She herself will take care of eliminating Ivans main source of emotional support Anastasia. While Anastasia is weak with illness, Euphronsinia tricks Ivan into offering her poisoned water from a chalice. Left friendless by Anastasias death and Kurbskys absence at war, Ivan organizes a circle of guards from the peasantry which he designates his iron ring. As a ploy to whip up support among the peasantry, he abandons Moscow with great fanfare for a retreat in Alexandrov, making it clear that he remains faithful to the people but has been betrayed by the boyars. A large delegation of peasants implore him to return to the throne, giving him the mandate that he requires to take on the nobility.
Part II of Ivan the Terrible picks up directly where Part I left off. On the western front, Kurbsky has undertaken the worst kind of treachery, surrendering to the Poles and pledging allegiance to their king, Sigismund (Pavel Massalsky), in an elaborate symbolic surrendering of his sword and its return. The ceremony is disrupted, however, by the arrival of news that Ivan has triumphantly reentered Moscow. Next, there is an important flashback scene (originally planned for inclusion in Part I, but censored by Stalin) that establishes the basis of Ivans hatred of the boyars. As a child, following his fathers death, he observed his mother being murdered by the boyars, leaving him an orphan. The flashback includes a highly effective scene where we see the young Ivan, politically dominated by the boyars, sitting on his throne trying to stretch his leg so as to touch the floor with his foot. Soon, however, we see Ivan assert his authority for the first time.
Back in the present, in a moment of weak judgment, Ivan resurrects an old friend Fyodor, a boyar who had been unable to support Ivan but who had chosen to take religious vows rather than oppose him. Ivan, feeling the need for emotional support, asks Fyodor, now Archbishop Philip, to assume the title of Metropolitan of Moscow. Fyodor will only agree on condition that he be allowed to speak on behalf of the interests of the boyars. Ivan desperate agrees, but is later convinced to pursue a more aggressive course of action by the head of his iron ring, Malyuta. Ivans resolve to take on his opponents is further solidified when he realizes for the first time that the beloved Czaritsa was poisoned and that Euphronsinia was the likely culprit. Ivan orders the execution of three of the top boyars. At the funeral of these boyars, Euphronsinia, Philip, and others plot openly against Ivan and the ceremony openly mocks him as a godless czar. Ivan walks in amidst the ceremony and observes their open hostility toward him.
An assassin is selected to kill Ivan during a banquet so that Euphronsinias son, Vladimir, will replace Ivan, ensuring a weak czar sympathetic to the boyars. The half-witted and gentle Vladimir has no stomach for either violence or intrigue and even a lullaby sung for him by his mother provides little reassurance. Ivan invites Vladimir to attend the banquet and after loading him up with wine, learns of the impending plot. (The banquet scene is shot in color, the first portion of the film to appear so and Eisensteins first experience with color. The film stock used had been confiscated from the Germans.) Ivan has Vladimir dressed in the robes and the crown of the czar as if in a game of dress-up. He then has Vladimir lead the company to the cathedral for midnight mass. It is not until the last moment, that Vladimir suddenly realizes the danger that he is in. In the cathedral, Vladimir is mistakenly stabbed to death by the assassin. Euphronsinia, thinking that her plot has succeeded, rushes in ebullient and gloating, only to discover that her son, and not Ivan, is the victim. Distraught, she repeats the earlier lullaby to the lifeless body of Vladimir, until he is unceremoniously dragged away. Ivan has now consolidated his power.
Ivan the Terrible: Themes Many of todays great nations struggled with the issue of centralization of power at one or more times in their history. In England, Henry I Beauclerc Plantagenet (1068-1135) struggled to unite the Saxons and the Normans and to constrain the power of the nobles. That struggle continued for several generations. America, so much younger as a country, struggled with the same issue more politically than violently, but the conflict included the transition from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution, which enhanced federalization. In a sense, the struggle continues today. The wealthy in America and corporate CEOs are equivalent to the boyars. They want a president (equivalent of the czar) who is favorably disposed to big business (the interests of the boyars). I guess that makes Bush the equivalent of the dim-witted Vladimir! (Hey, if the shoe fits, wear it!) The democrats favor a strong federal government that can reign in and regulate the power of the corporations. I guess that makes Kerry the equivalent of Ivan!
If one is looking at the issue of centralization of authority from the vantage point of the well-being of the masses (as would any good populist), centralization is not necessarily either good or bad. It can be either in practice. Most societies function as three level structures the central authority, the aristocracy, and the masses. In most times and places, the masses suffer more from exploitation by the aristocracy than by the central authority. When thats the case, increased centralization of authority can check the power of the aristocracy and ease the exploitation of the masses. The central authority must usually direct most of its power toward holding the aristocracy at bay. In fact, the central authority often has to ally itself with the masses precisely because it needs the support of the masses to effectively challenge the aristocracy. This is precisely what Ivan did when he retreated from Moscow to Alexandrov near the end of Part I.
If however, centralization of authority reaches dictatorial proportions, the central leader can become tyrannical as occurred with both Stalin and Hitler. Usually, purges by dictators are directed mainly at the aristocrats and others in positions of intermediate power, but, in the extreme, dictators can even direct their tyranny against the masses in the form of genocides, as both Stalin and Hitler proved. Probably the best circumstance for ordinary people is when there is a dynamic balance of power between the central authority and the aristocracy so that neither is free to abuse the masses without challenge. On an international scale, a country benefits when it has a substantial degree of centralization of authority by being able to organize effective opposition to foes (Ivans main rationale for his effort) but also benefits when its enemies lack that same centralization. I imagine that Russians watching Ivan the Terrible are more enthusiastic about Ivans contribution to consolidating disparate principalities into the country we now know as Russia than are international audiences that sometimes feel threatened by Russian nationalist identity.
I dont personally see either part of the film Ivan the Terrible as a portrait of Stalin, positive or negative. It has sometimes been suggested that Part I glamorizes Stalin while Part II implicitly denigrates him and his methods. In my opinion, the film simply deals with issues of power and central authority as they applied to the sixteenth century during a key time in Russian history, but since the issues are universal to some extent, these themes were inherently relevant to Stalinist Russia of the 1940s. Eisenstein simply presented something akin to a truthful examination of the life of Ivan the Terrible and it so happened that Part I provided some parallels that Stalin found pleasing and Part II other parallels that he found troublesome. The communist revolution overthrew the power of the last czar and the nobility (which freed them from one kind of oppression) but that allowed the rise of unchecked central authority (that led to another kind of oppression). Ivan squashed the power of the boyars with the help of the masses, freeing them from one kind of virtual enslavement, but once his power was unchecked, he became their oppressor. Power corrupts!
Ivan the Terrible: Production Values Ivan the Terrible is like no other film ever made. Whether thats good or bad is something that each viewer must determine for themselves. In my opinion, Ivan the Terrible is closer in its style and conventions to filmed versions of Russian opera than to any other conventional movie. I have had a long-standing love for Russian opera and two of my most prized videos are Bolshoi Opera renditions of two Moussorgsky operas, Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina. I have had long familiarity with the conflicts between the czars, the boyars, and the Russian Orthodox Church from these operas. The story of Boris Godunov, in fact, is just one generation removed from the period covered in Ivan the Terrible. After Ivans death, his second son, Theodore, became czar (the eldest son had died by Ivans own hand), but was a very weak ruler and was dominated by his wifes brother, Boris Godunov. With Prokofievs beautiful choral and orchestral music and Eisensteins lavish stylized settings and intense symbolism, Ivan the Terrible differs from Russian opera mainly only by a lack of arias and recitative and more dialogue.
Ivan the Terrible is one of the most technically complex films ever made. The sophistication of Eisensteins visual vocabulary is extraordinary. Try watching this film a second time to concentrate of the visual aspects as opposed to the story per se. Check out the frescos and other wall decorations and how they frame the faces of characters to provide an added level of meaning. Look at the ornamentations on the chairs, goblets, and serving platters. Watch how shadows pass across faces to highlight key moments or how the intensity or direction of lighting suddenly changes to highlight a piece of dialogue. Watch for particular postures that recur from one scene to another to highlight parallels, such as Vladimir's head in his mothers lap and later in Ivans lap. Watch for the recurrence of individuals peering at the camera with just one eye open. Watch for recurring props like the chalices and coins. Watch for characters that look like or move like certain animals. Ivan, with his pointy goatee, for example, is made to look eagle-like. Then theres a whole other level of meaning where Eisenstein imitates certain Christian icons, paintings, or frescoes. Every frame in Ivan the Terrible is like a little painting in its own right.
There is little action in Ivan the Terrible, other than, perhaps, the one battle scene in Part I. This is a film mainly about intrigue and psychological states, so Eisenstein makes his principal canvas the human face. The style of acting is like that in silent film and, also, in opera. Gestures and expressions are exaggerated. Prokofiev's music heightens the emotional intensity. This is communication based on symbolism, not realism. Some will find the highly stylized quality of this film annoying. Its not surprising, really, that Ivan the Terrible has been voted onto several lists of the top ten films ever and at least one list of the worst fifty!
Bottom-Line: Both Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible are highly unusual films, although for different reasons. Alexander Nevsky is in some respects almost a visual accompaniment for an amazing musical score. It is sparse in character development but features a strong performance by Cherkassov and a great battle scene. Ivan the Terrible uses highly stylized performances and probably the most rigorous visual composition in the history of film, along with another great musical score. I cant guarantee youll like, much less love, either film. It really hinges on your willingness to open your eyes and mind to a unique kind of film experience rather than judging the films against conventional expectations. They really are quite unique, each in its own way. The Criterion DVD set gives you every opportunity to fully appreciate these great films, with the high quality of reproduction as well as the informative essays. I dont usually like to quote other film critics, but Ill make an exception here to emphasize the high regard in which this set is held. Roger Eberts opening sentence in reviewing this set reads, Criterions brilliant new boxed set Eisenstein: The Sound Years, containing both Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, is easily one of the most important DVD releases ever. I agree entirely!
You might want to check out these other excellent films from Russia and the U.S.S.R.:
Ballad of a Soldier
Burnt By the Sun
Come and See
The Cranes Are Flying
Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
War and Peace
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older