With a basic cultural understanding, it’s easy to figure out what films have been made under the rule of dictatorships: There is a suck-up attitude underlying the film, an uneasy eagerness to please, and of course, plenty of overtures to the great nation of wherever led by the honorable and infallible dictator whomever.
These elements are easy enough to say in Eistensteins Ivan the Terrible. Even the subject of the film, the rise to power of Tsar Ivan, the first to articulate a dream of a united Russia, fits in nicely with the expectations and demands of Stalinist Russia.
A certain liberal objection to Stalinism and propaganda aside, the Eisenstein’s effort to bring the legend of Ivan to life makes for a bombastic, enthusiastic film. The costumes are outrageous, the scenes blinged out, even the acting manages to have all of the high melodrama of silent film while not being laughable–a surprisingly and exciting balance to watch. The film was meant to be a 3 part epic chronicling the entire career of Ivan the Terrible–and this first part is a pointedly ambitious start.
The film begins with the crowning of Ivan as Tsar and captures all of the over-the-top pomp and circumstance one would expect of medieval rulers (like having buckets of gold coins poured over him during the crowning) make for great scenes–and a notable parallel to the excesses and personality cults of even contemporary dictators.
In another (historically accurate) parallel to the Soviet state, Ivan quickly pisses off the other feudal lords by declaring himself superior, not sharing power, and being more invested in a united Russia than in supplying and continuing all of the separate fiefdoms.
In a number of dramatic speeches and declarative statements, Ivan wins the support of the people and goes to war against the Kazakhs, defeating them easily. On his return home, however, he falls ill, and the story turns to focus on the machinations of the feudal lords as they debate how to topple him.
This being the first part of a trilogy, our protagonist does not die. He is, however, greatly weakened by the treachery of the Boyers, and decides to leave Moscow, declaring that he will not come back as a soldier, but only if invited by the people.
Surprisingly populist for a 16th century ruler who’d later be known for a particularly violent form of paranoia, but hey, Stalinist Russia.
Eisenstein’s homage takes a serious turn in the next installment of the trilogy, wherein a powerful army devotes his time to purges and secret police. This was a parallel that Stalin appreciated less than the first installment, and he quickly banned the film. Apparently running all of Eastern Europe means that you are no longer worried about things like irony.
The film is a template for the charisma and tragedy of all dictators: Men who have the power to outwit their enemies and dominate a nation inevitably take it too far, and in the name of what? The ease with which Ivan orders people’s executions is something past callous–to be callous means that you care enough to be mean. To him–and to all dictatorships–humanism is a waste, and human lives become commodities, bricks with which to build empires, spread cosmologies, or feed an ego. It is not a question of leadership, it is a question of domination.
If you like epically-minded films, but have misplaced your copy of The Ten Commandments, I really recommend this film. Also, you should see Mongol, a modern-day attempt to give the Eisenstein treatment to Genghis Khan.