It’s not often that I fail to gush but I have to admit to feeling slightly let down by tonight’s Scenes from Ivan the Terrible… at least in cinematic terms. But it’s not Eisenstein’s fault
It seems odd that for a partnership lauded as creating one of the most innovative melds of music and pictures, we were limited to excerpts from the visual part as background to the full orchestral majesty of the music. If we can immerse ourselves in five hours of Carl Davis and Abel Gance we can surely handle a mere three of the Sergei’s Prokofiev and Eisenstein.
That entire aside, the music was stunning and Vladimir Ashkenazy conducted his 120 piece plus choir and orchestra with amazing energy and control. The opening section was a performance of Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite which felt very progressive not least because I remember famed electricity-wasters, Emerson, Lake and Palmer performing a rocked up version of the Enemy God section. This orchestral version had more clout though and you can see why the composer was such an influence on Emerson, Wakeman and the other caped keyboardists.
Then the choir came onstage in such numbers that their entrance resembled the scene in Part 1 where thousands of people come to pay their respects to Tsar Ivan. They were joined by soloists Lilli Paasikivi and Nathan Berg for the performance of an oratorio accompanied by excerpts from both Ivan Part 1 and 2.
This was musically a success but without the films’ full-length narrative to explain it, the emotional impact was undermined. Eisenstein described Prokofiev’s music as “plastic” – “it never remains merely illustrative…” but it’s not elastic… and I felt torn between trying to understand the film as it jumped between scenes and this complex, powerful and impactful music. Even this oratorio was concocted in the sixties by a British composer as Prokofiev had neglected to do this in the manner of his pervious scores.
But, how can I really make sense of it all without seeing the full films? Hang on… goes off to watch the Criterion DVD set of Parts 1 and 2…
Oh my… this has more subtext than a Shakespearean film with German sub-titles!
Eisenstein idea for Ivan came in the early war years and the thrust of Part 1 seems very much a propagandist one – calling on the viewers to support the legitimacy of the Russian state against the invading Europeans (with the notable exception of England and Good Queen Bess I) and reminding them how hard-fought the country’s unification had been in the 1500s when Ivan, previously the Duke of Moscow, declared himself the Tsar of all Russia.
|Mikhail Nazanov, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Vladimir Balashov|
Parallels with Stalin are clear and the wonder is just how much Joe let past: was he flattered by this sympathetic portrait of the dynamic leader able to bend an entire country to his will?
Ivan (Nikolay Cherkasov) pushes away the compromises of traditional noble support – and the landowners (c.f. the Kulaks and all others in the way of fast-tracked agrarian to industrial economic development) – in favour of men such as Alexei Basmanov (Amvrosi Buchma) a commoner who owed everything to Ivan. They formed a ring of steel around the Tsar, their own interests intricately linked to his own.
|Mikhail Nazanov and Lyudmila Tselikovskaya|
From his opening coronation Eisenstein sets out Ivan’s majesty and his radical agenda. Surrounded by family and vested interest he is crowned in splendour with gold coins poured carefully over his head symbolising a baptism of sheer wealth and power. He them proclaims his intention to unit Russia and to fight off the enemies at her borders in Europe who exert a stranglehold on her supplies. He will take money from the nobles and the church to fund the creation of a new army.
Ivan's aunt Efrosinia (the magnificent Serafima Birman) looks on plotting to place her own son in his place, Vladimir (Pavel Kadochnikov), a grown man with limited mental faculties: his mother’s pawn. The camera swings around the cathedral to show other opposition mostly the decadent and the over confident.
|Serafima Birman and Pavel Kadochnikov|
Then there are Ivan’s two best friends, the pious Piotr (Vladimir Balashov) who decides to follow holy orders rather than support this new absolutism and Prince Andrei Kurbsky (Mikhail Nazanov) – jealous and proud like a brother who just happens to have an eye on Ivan’s intended Tsarina Anastasia (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya).
Anastasia and Ivan are duly married in another stunningly choreographed set piece only to be interrupted by a minor revolt put down by Ivan’s sheer force of will – all very flattering for the film’s ultimate editor up in the Kremlin. But I wonder if there are parallels to be drawn with Powell and Pressburger’s propaganda films of the same period? Both sets of film-makers were trying to inspire the right kind of response from audiences rather than just be overly-didactic. They also smuggled in extra meaning about the powers that be – a call to the more discerning viewers to think beyond slavish loyalties and find deeper motivations.
|The attack on Kazan|
Ivan goes to war and there’s a massed battle as he defeats the Kazan through guile – digging deep to lay explosives underneath their fort – even though Kurbsky is doubtful.
Ivan returns home almost unchallenged and yet when he falls ill, few are willing to swear allegiance to his baby son. He survives to take revenge on his faint-hearted noblemen but his enemies, The Boyars, are willing to stop at nothing and poison his wife.
Ivan reels from this blow as his armies face defeat abroad – Kurbsky surrendering to the Poles – and all looks lost. He withdraws from Moscow and is finally given the strength to return by a massed march of his people: one of the most spectacular scenes as thousands snake across the snow to support their Tsar. One particular shot of Ivan’s wizened face in profile against the pure white sky as his follows move towards him is worth the price of admission alone. Full marks to cinematographers Andrei Moskvin and Eduard Tisse - animated Bill Brandt.
All this Uncle Joe liked: the leader given power and legitimacy by his people and set to conquer all in their name, but he was less please with Part 2 filmed directly afterwards. This showed the Tsar gradually losing his grip as paranoia robs him of friends and makes him increasingly reliant on the men who he had elevated and who therefore owed him everything.
Stalin had lost his own wife in 1932 (she killed herself) and you wonder how much he could see the parallels in Ivan’s own behaviour without Anastasia… people did have a habit of dying around Stalin and he lost the ability to trust quite early on himself.
|The Polish court|
Whatever he detected in Part 2 it was enough for him to stop its distribution and it didn’t see the light of day until 1958 during the Khrushchev years. It still feels very much like the immediate follow-up it was, using the same sets and the odd shot from Part 1.
The film sees Ivan rising to meet the challenge of the Boyars, the leading nobility, for whom his aunt is the prime mover. She wants to elevate her son to Tsar and eventually plots to kill Ivan after he refuses to be curbed by the influence of his former friend Piotr, Bishop of Moscow, and orders the brutal killing of potential insurrectionists.
|The State and the Church clash: Ivan and Piotr|
Having dressed in black for most of the two films, suddenly Aunt Efrosinia is wearing white and gently cradling Vladimir in order to encourage his ambition… the lines between good and bad blur accordingly.
Vladmir goes to a party with Cousin Ivan and Eisenstein shifts to full colour to show the revels as Ivan’s men spin across the screen in a blur of red motion. They are led by Basmanov's son Fyodor (Mikhail Kuznetsov) cross-dressing to show the decadent nature of Ivan’s own cadre: just as bad as those they have replaced?
Another commoner Malyuta Skuratov (Mikhail Zharov) has become Ivan's eyes and ears, leading his secret police and managing the disposal of unwanted opposition.
All comes to a head when a plot to assassinate Ivan in the cathedral goes disastrously wrong…
|Mikhail Kuznetsov, Pavel Kadochnikov and Vladimir Ashkenazy|
Eisenstein was already filming Part 3 when Stalin put the brakes on Part 2 and the four reels that were filmed have seemingly disappeared. The director jokingly referred to the films as his “suicide note” and, possibly as a result of the stress of making them he died in 1948 putting an end to one of the most influential partnerships in film: Prokovief ceased his involvement in cinema.
The films remain a highly-stylised and challenging watch for modern audiences, with much angular posturing and jerky, almost balletic movement: I don’t recall seeing a film with such signature movements.
Nikolay Cherkasov is superb at the Tsar with the ingrained path to destiny. Power corrupts and absolute power makes you grow an absolutely long straggly beard!
So… after all this do I understand the music better? Yes of course, certain themes are clearer as are many of the characters who appear in disjointed form in the excerpts especially friend Kurbsky doubly doomed by his ambition and love of Anastasia to betray his Tsar and in doing so, destroy his faith in friendship, trust and people.
The soundtrack is so much a part of the narrative, interwoven with character and development from the strange almost mechanistic movements of the cathedral bells to the heroic themes for Ivan and many moods: maybe one day they will show the complete films and score live… we can take it, really!
Meanwhile, the Criterion Edition is an excellent print – better than was used at the RFH – and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.