Ivan the Terrible Part 2 (1946)

It’s been said that when Soviet filmmakers found it too dangerous to make films about their modern world, they retreated into historical subjects cos they were “safer”. There was, though, little that was “safe” about the second part of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, especially not by comparison with the first, which won the Stalin Prize whereas this was locked up and not released until 1958, long after the deaths of both its maker and its implied subject… if Stalin saw Ivan as something to aspire to and the first film had been a glowing propaganda piece supporting the identification, part 2 continues that identification in a much darker light; Ivan’s attempts to wipe out the boyars for opposing Russian unity obviously paralleled Stalin’s own battles with the kulaks over collectivisation, and the formation of the oprichnina—Ivan’s personal police and organ of state terror—was also obviously meant to have contemporary resonance, especially considering the historical progress of the oprichnina and their ultimate turning on themselves… This is a remarkable turnaround from part 1 in many ways; quite apart from feeling like Eisenstein’s offered a comparative knife in the back after the hagiography of part 1, there’s a greater sense of dramatic unity (part 1 plays out over years in distinct sections), and of melodrama too, Ivan himself is humanised to some extent but also made more dangerous. We can, obviously lament that the projected third part of the trilogy was never made, and that only a few minutes of the film that was shot for it still exists (it’s in this DVD set too), and yet Ivan part 2 actually works quite well by itself in wrapping up at least the major plot involving Efrosinia trying to replace Ivan with her son Vladimir (the business with Prince Kurbsky defecting to Poland obviously goes unresolved). Indeed, having seen both films again (and, again, it was nice to see the Criterion edition with the legible subtitles and THE CORRECT COLOURS), I’m finding it easy to think of part 2 as the real film and part 1 as just the somewhat extended prologue to it…

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