Ivan the Terrible Part 1 (1944)

Again, something I haven’t seen in years (probably 20, in fact), and last saw in a substandard video version (those horrible, horrible image-obliterating subtitles), so nice to see this again in an actually decent version, thank you Criterion… Anyway, as with Alexander Nevsky, I’d kind of forgotten just quite how overtly propagandist Ivan part 1 is, especially when you remember the troubles part 2 would run into after the first film wound up being so beloved by the regime; Hoberman calls it “official art with a vengeance” in the DVD booklet note, and it’s well said… Interesting to remember that Stalin himself felt a kinship with the historical Ivan, so Ivan the Terrible can be viewed as Eisenstein sucking up to the Dear Father, which again makes the second part’s censorship adventures rather more bleakly amusing while making part 1 sadder to watch. Here we have Ivan taking power, vowing to unite Russia as a single state (which it wasn’t at the time), and bitterly opposed by the boyars, the Russian nobility, chief among them his own aunt Efrosinia who wants her own son, the backward Vladimir, to be Tsar instead; she’s a ghastly character, surely one of the most striking female villains ever in film. Ivan himself, obviously, is as monumental a figure as you’d probably expect from a film like this; there are no real human beings in this film, but arguably that was never Eisenstein’s strength anyway. Immediately noticeable: 1) the wild hair, 2) the jaw-dropping shadows, 3) some interesting homoeroticism (the Tartar hostages shot with arrows have a definite whiff of the St Sebastians to them) and 4) the jagged editing and jump cutting. The film is absolutely rotten with mismatches on action; I had to keep rewinding bits to assure myself that, yes, I actually had seen what I thought I saw. It’s eye-popping, but it’s obviously a deliberate tactic by Eisenstein rather than just flagrant ignorance of continuity cutting or anything like that. The whole film is eye-popping, really, but at the same time I find it hard to actually like the thing somehow; I do look forward to renewing my acquaintance with part 2 tomorrow, though…

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