Ivan The Terrible: when Eisenstein tried to escape Stalin’s censorship

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According to Charlie Chaplin it’s “the greatest historic film that has ever been made”. Orson Welles judged it in the New York Post with more critical tones, pointing his finger especially on the scarce resources of Russian cinema, but he didn’t miss to highlight its aesthetic merits. The success of public in Russia made it a real collective phenomenon, and Stalin, who financed it with public funds as a true expression of the communist party, publicly praised the merits, giving the director the prestigious Stalin Award in 1946. Sergei Eisenstein, the artist. The former rebel who until a few years before, when he made Bežin lug, was accused directly by the leaders of Soviet cinema, and then assolved by Stalin himself. And the most curious part of it, it’s that Ivan The Terrible, the film commissioned by the general Secretary of the Communist Party, was for Eisenstein a hidden way to assert the independence of art on political dictatorship.

Little step backwards. It’s 1944. Russia is under the absolute command of the Communist Party and Josif Stalin is increasingly convinced that artistic production is legitimate only if it transmits a message that is consistent with the image of the party. The reactions of the artists is divided between those who accept the facts and try to adapt to the new conditions in order to continue to produce their art (like Mejerchol’d, Shostakovich and Mayakovsky) and those who tried to resist, ending up exiled or condemned to silence (it’s the case of Cvetaeva, Zamjatin and Gor’kij). Halfway between the two, there is a small middle-earth where artists tried to implement a compromise, according to their own rules: explicitly faithful to the rules of the party, while trying at the same time not to stop being loyal to their own principles. Sergei Eisenstein, the greatest Russian director, was one of these. And Ivan the terrible was his most ambitious project: to gain the approval of the party in representing the figure of power, to make the first movie in a way that would convince everybody (party leader included), and then try in the following parts (the project was supposed to be a trilogy) to introduce his artistic vision.

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The shared opinion saying that you cannot understand the first Ivan the terrible without first understanding the concept of “socialist realism” is 100% true. The Socialist realism, as it was intended by the Communist Party in its intent to direct the artistic production of the entire country, meant to give life to an art that was simple to understand, because it was addressed to people, able to contribute to the ideological education of the working class according to the Communist philosophy and faithful to the historical facts and their evolution. Eisenstein’s film is pure socialist realism, made with the most complete acceptance of the principles demanded by the party. And Tsar Ivan is the absolute representation of power, the iron fist against the opponents, the strength of fidelity to his own principles, the authority that must never be questioned and must use any means to eliminate its enemies. It’s no surprise that Stalin identified himself in a very personal way with the figure of Ivan, the first tsar of United Russia. It is not surprising that the portrayal of Ivan conceived by Eisenstein fully satisfied him: Ivan is firm, authoritative, adamant. The full expression of a earthly power that comes from the divine will. The strongest image of power ever appeared on film. Enriched by the incomparable aesthetic vision of Eisenstein, which comes to life through the light effects, the bloody eyes of the characters, the motionless faces, the symbolic overlays. The image of Ivan the terrible, in every single frame, could not be more powerful.

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Nikolay Cherkasov in the role of Ivan the Terrible

Yet that was to be the first of three chapters, which were supposed to cover the entire life of Ivan IV of Russia. The second chapter would have already shown a different tsar. Less divine and more human. Able to ask questions, to allow those around him to express their positions, to allow the dissent to take the word without major consequences, to go back on his own decisions. Probably Eisenstein wanted to send an omen, a hope that power could allow you to give advises, could open up to the others’ positions, could understand that the reality it’s trying to govern is more complex than it seems. The second Ivan the Terrible was the moment when the image of power began to take some distance from the dictatorship that was in front of everybody’s eyes in those years.

It didn’t work. At all. The second movie was filmed between 1944 and 1945. In the spring of 1946 Eisenstein wrote to Stalin to ask for approval. But Stalin didn’t like the movie. He didn’t appreciate the characteristics with which Ivan was represented: “Tsar Ivan was a great and wise ruler, while in Eisenstein’s movie he is a indecisive, resembling Hamlet”. These are the words of Stalin at the party meeting. The release of the film is denied. Six months later, Stalin summoned Eisenstein to the Kremlin and reiterates the criticism: “Ivan the Terrible was a very cruel person. You can depict him as a cruel man, but you have to show why he had to be cruel. One of the mistakes of Ivan concerned the fact that he did not entirely butcher the five major feudal families. …Then, there would not be troubles later on.” The movie should have been revisioned in this direction. The need for the iron fist must be reaffirmed.

Eisenstein, already sick and weak, will die two years later, without following the request. The third film of the trilogy will never be done, shooting was blocked immediately after the second film, while the latter remained a victim of censorship for over ten years, and it was showed for the first time only in 1958. It was only at that moment that Eisenstein’s second Ivan could be seen: the introduction of color in the most significant part of the movie, the scenes most faithful to the theatrical aesthetics so dear to the Russian director, the flashback on Ivan’s childhood, the final words when he seated at the throne in the last scene, according to which “a Tsar should be at all times circumspective, being merciful towards the humble ones and condemning the sinners to tortures. Otherwise, the tsar is not a tsar.” Ivan The Terrible Part 2 is another great Eisenstein. Less gloryful than the first, by intentional choice, and for this reason more personal and meaningful.

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In the book The Triumph of the Artist, Tzvetan Todorov summarizes the result of the control attempts from the Communist Party on the artistic production with these words: “The Soviet state is far more powerful than the individual, it has no difficulty in condemning to death or social inexistence people who didn’t comply. It’s a hopeless fight and direct resistance is almost impossible. The regime will end up winning numerous battles. But it will lose the war.” And it will lose against the ideas that will survive it after its fall. The same ideas proclaimed by Russian artists with their resistance, explicit or hidden.

Eisenstein made his voluntary concessions to ensure the possibility of his artistic expression. Through that, he realized his masterpieces and his hidden resistance. Thanks to that, today we can celebrate one of the greatest aesthetics masters that cinema ever had.

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