Film Reviews

Framed Lives, Autumn 2016: Monarchs

Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part I - Review by Eleanor Sawbridge Burton

The IoPA’s ‘Framed Lives’ series is a long-term programme of termly film screenings at the ICA in central London. Every term takes a different focus, and each film is followed by a discussion between the audience, IoPA psychoanalyst Andrea Sabbadini, and a guest speaker with specialist knowledge of cinema or the performing arts. The first ‘Framed Lives’ series looked at films about painters, and forthcoming seasons are already planned on scientists and writers. The events are attended by diverse audiences, and always involve lively post-screening discussions.

This autumn’s series of ‘Framed Lives’ takes ‘Monarchs’ as its theme, showing four films based on the lives of historical kings and queens. The second screening was of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part I, an extraordinary study in power, paranoia, and loneliness. A keen audience congregated at the ICA to watch this dark, beautiful and compelling film, made in Soviet Russia, and to hear from Professor Ian Christie, a renowned expert in the history of Russian cinema.  

Sergei Eisenstein, now celebrated as an enormously important early filmmaker, made this film between 1942 and 1944, within the confines of Stalin’s repressive totalitarian regime, as the horrors of the Second World War  unfolded across Europe and beyond. Ivan the Terrible focuses on Russia’s first and most notorious tsar, Ivan IV, and was made with the approval of Joseph Stalin, who had previously much admired Eisenstein’s Alexander  Nevsky (1938) for its supposed glorification of another historical Russian figure. Professor Christie spoke about the pressure Eisenstein was under to create a film that would please the Soviet dictator and fall in line with his pro-  Russian (and, indeed, pro-Stalin) propagandist requirements.

It is fascinating to consider the film in light of the knowledge that Stalin believed it glorified both Russia’s history and himself, since, to the eyes of many viewers, it is a film electrified by paranoia and the constant threat of  violence and betrayal, and is haunted by something like despair. The sixteenth-century tsar Ivan IV is infamous as a ruthless and iron-fisted ruler who ordered the deaths of many people during his long reign, and who, it is said, murdered his own son in a fit of violent rage. He is portrayed in Eisenstein’s film as an immensely powerful and impressive, yet also joyless, isolated, paranoid figure, unable to trust anyone but his wife (who in turn is murdered by plotting rivals, leaving him utterly alone). With the exception of the battle and final scenes, the film is shot inside, and is full of deep shadows, dark corners and flickering candlelight.

Despite the magnificence of Eisenstein’s sets and costumes – luxuriant furs, glittering jewels, and gold, that somehow transcend the film’s black and white print – this portrait of 16th century Moscow reveals an oppressive, hostile and suspicious world. Eisenstein’s tsar Ivan is a desolate man, alone and in constant danger in his self-inflicted state of absolute power. Indeed, this film seems to suggest that extreme power is very close to powerlessness; that to rule is also to be unable to trust, to be loved, to collaborate or connect authentically with others. It is to become, in a way, imprisoned in one’s self. In one scene Ivan’s huge, distorted shadow looms spectrally over him, and the film is filled with watchful eyes – both the extraordinarily expressive eyes of the cast, and the Orthodox ‘all-seeing’ eye painted onto walls and stitched into cloaks.

Professor Christie touched upon Eisenstein’s conflicted relationship with authority figures, including his own father and the ruthless Joseph Stalin. Eisenstein had lived with his father as a child after his mother and father divorced, and he was a very distant, unaffectionate man. The young Eisenstein experienced intense loneliness growing up. Professor Christie described how he identified his tsar Ivan with his father, with Stalin, and with himself. He went on to draw the audience’s attention to the tripartite structures that pervade the film. In fact, Eisenstein had originally planned an Ivan trilogy, to follow the tsar throughout his reign to his death, but the third, while still unfinished, was almost completely destroyed by the Soviet authorities. It is thought the third film showed Ivan in far too maddened and dark a way for Stalin’s liking. Indeed, by the time Eisenstein was making the third film, Stalin had sunk into a state of intense paranoia.

Eisenstein read the work of Sigmund Freud as a young man, and was enthralled by the ideas of psychoanalysis. He would later declare that it was impossible for any filmmaker or poet to create their art without having read Freud, the ‘great man of Vienna’, and that within each of Freud’s works existed thousands of ideas for films. Eisenstein expressed a desire to have psychoanalytic treatment himself, clearly wanting help with his emotional difficulties, among which was recurrent depression. However, despite its having gone through a thriving period of development in pre-revolutionary Russia, psychoanalysis’ suppression in the advent of Stalin’s ascent to power made any hope of Eisenstein having an analysis impossible. His friend and correspondent, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, later sent him a book by Freud, signed by the analyst himself.

In discussing the unrealised third and final Ivan film, Professor Christie shared a particularly poignant piece of information: Eisenstein’s vision for the final scene would have seen the tsar standing alone on the seashore, staring out to sea. In his notes, the director wrote that it should convey a sense of enormous bleakness, a feeling that he himself experienced throughout his life. According to drawings he made for this scene, he was going to show Ivan pushing back the waves. Perhaps this would have been a final tragic irony: that Ivan’s supreme power could master nature itself, yet could not save him from his absolute loneliness.