суббота, 13 мая 2017 г.

Non est magnum ingenium sine mixtur dementiae

First of all - it would be a mistake to treat Ivan the Terrible as a biopic, as a historical film. The stylization after opera and Shakespeare's plays, such as HamletKing LearMacbeth, is deliberate: Eisenstein himself defined Ivan the Terrible as a "tragedy in the Shakespearean mode". Indeed: Ivan the Terrible tells about real Ivan IV, the first Russian tsar, as much as Hamlet tells about real 12th-century Amleth.

Ivan the Terrible sacrifices historicity for the sake of aesthetics and story: the chronology is not correct, many important events are simplified or omitted (to name a few - Ivan IV was officially married at least 4 times, he was crowned by metropolitan Makarius - not bishop Pimen, Efrosinia Staritskaya wasn't the sole head of the boyar opposition, Vladimir Staritsky wasn't mentally deficient, Grigory "Malyuta" Skuratov entered the tsar retinue well after the depicted events, the Basmanovs weren't commoners, etc.)

By many deliberate inaccuracies and generalizations Eisenstein makes the point that he creates neither biopic nor historical epic but a many-layered timeless parable. As the first opening credits say, in large letters: "This is a film about a man...". It’s hard to add anything more specific because of all the themes Ivan the Terrible incorporates. Is it about tyranny? Or about a man assuming the role of god? Or being "lonely at the top"? Or is it a desperate outcry against cruelty and autocracy? Or about the road to hell which is paved with good intentions? About revenge and retaliation - the cycle of violence which never breaks?... Like with Mona Lisa's smile - a multitude of interpretations is possible.

Ivan the Terrible combines both the elements of the classical European theater based on Shakespeare's plays, and the Asian theatrical tradition with its emphasis on gesture, pose, movement. The characters' faces seem to be inspired by Renaissance paintings but the body language is strongly influenced by Noh and Kabuki performance. And the Peking opera, of course: not surprising, considering Eisenstein's friendship with Mei Lanfang, the famous performer of female roles, whom he filmed during Mei Lanfang's visit to USSR in 1935. 

The actors speak in over-the-top theatrical, unnatural manner. Their movements are symbolic and suggestive, rather than realistic. Similar to the Peking opera, Ivan the Terrible presents idealized, generalized images, that convey spiritual likeness of people, which stimulates viewer's imagination - not just a formal, physical resemblance.

While working on the film, Eisenstein thought in terms of lines, shapes, rhythm, and he demanded from actors a special kind of movement plastic. Eisenstein even wanted to cast great ballerina Galina Ulanova as Anastasia. As he wrote in the diary, "an act of movement is at the same time an act of thinking, and a thought - at the same time - is an action in space" ("двигательный акт есть одновременно акт мышления, а мысль - одновременно - пространственное действие"). This approach is especially noticeable in the scene where Ivan tries to stop metropolitan Philip from leaving in Part II - it’s a peerless choreographic sequence, with all that cloak pulling and mantle trampling.


It's worth noting that "Ivan the Terrible" is actually a mistranslation. Ivan’s nickname, "Grozny", has nothing to do with terror and doesn't have a bad meaning. Sometimes it's translated into English as "Ivan the Fearsome", which is slightly more correct. In fact, the adjective "grozny" is derived from the Russian word "groza" - "thunderstorm". (That's why thunderstorm clouds serve as background for the film credits.) In older Russian "groza" also meant "threat" (its modern form - "ugroza"). One of the Russian dictionaries explains the word "grozny" as "courageous, magnificent, magisterial and keeping enemies in fear, but people in obedience". But, in my opinion, the best definition is provided by TVtropes.org: "terrifying yet awesome" - like a thunderstorm.

Another thing which may be confusing for a non-Russian viewer is who were the Oprichniki and why they are considered bad guys. In short, the Oprichniki were the tsar's personal punitive army with a dash of Inquisition. They dressed in black and emulated the monastic life; they weren't controlled by laws and answered only to the tsar. With their help Ivan IV established his autocratic reign: in uprooting any opposition the Oprichniki extensively used tortures, mass murders and gruesome executions.


My favorite thing about Ivan the Terrible is that each scene (and nearly every shot) is constructed like a meaningful, symbolic picture: Eisenstein called cinema "the highest stage of painting". Expressionists lighting effects contribute to the shots painterly appearance, facial features are distorted, perspective laws are broken. Disproportionate objects convey not reality but perception. The story is mostly told by means of almost static, yet extremely expressive scenes - like in manga, where what is drawn and how it's drawn are of equal importance. Ivan the Terrible would have made a great manga - just redraw the shots from the movie and add dialog bubbles. That's what probably hooked me up on this film in the first place - I'm mostly indifferent to cinema. Really, if you screencap the entire film (I actually did it: VLC Media Player, Scene filter), nearly every image you get will be a visual masterpiece, a work of art by itself.


During the course of the story Ivan goes through a metamorphosis: young enthusiastic ruler, husband, warrior, politician, widower, hermit, tyrant, madman, visionary, devil... By the end of the film the actor's (Nikolai Cherkasov) makeup bears striking resemblance to that of Mephistopheles in Gounod's classic opera Faust


Each scene is full of symbols: disproportionate shadows on the walls, throne which is too high for the child-tsar, huge book "swallowing" Ivan’s face during anointing, Vladimir stretching his hand to a crown on a black swan's head yet failing to reach it...

During Ivan’s illness his cousin, childish and feeble-minded Vladimir, is seen toying with a fly he caught - a metaphor of indifferent fate toying with people’s lives. Or, perhaps, a hint that the tsar is faking his illness to expose the disloyal boyars. 

These three European ambassadors are blatant caricatures (which is especially noticeable because all other Europeans in the film look more "realistic"). However, their image should convey not historicity, but an emotion, impression: the Europeans look with disdain at "barbaric" Muscovy, and that's how the Muscovites see them in return, with their strange customs (like shaving) and odd impractical clothes:


Chess pieces on the board, black and white world of European intrigues and political games. After fleeing Russia, Andrei Kurbsky makes himself another piece on this board:

This is a generalized, symbolic image of Europe, and the throne room is deliberately constructed like a theatrical decoration. Polish king Sigismund II Augustus looks more like effeminate Henry III of France. The group of ladies resembles dowager queen Catherine de' Medici with her female retinue.

Chess motif as a symbol of European politics appears also when Ivan instructs his ambassador before sending him to England: he should present a set of chess pieces to queen Elizabeth I.


The cup with the poisoned drink is poignantly decorated with a relief of Sirin - a mythological creature of Russian legends. A heavenly bird, Sirin sings to the saints in paradise. For mortals, however, she is dangerous: those who hear her song will forget everything on earth, follow her, and ultimately die.

Sirin as the harbinger of death appears again, this time on a mural, when Vladimir, dressed in the tsar’s garments, is being herded by the Oprichniki to the church, where the assassin is waiting:


This icon of Basil Fool for Christ appears during Ivan's anointing:

Basil, holy fool for Christ, or yurodivy, died in 1552 and was canonized during the later years of Ivan IV’s reign, in 1580, so his icons couldn’t have existed yet. But the reminder of this saint sheds more light on Ivan's personality: historically, Ivan IV greatly respected Basil for always telling the truth despite ranks and status, even rebuking the tsar himself. Apparently, the "holy fool for Christ" tradition had a special meaning for the tsar: Ivan IV used the alias of "Parthenius Yurodivy" for some of his literary works (such as the canon (hymn) for Archistrategos Mikhail the Fearsome Angel).

In the context of Ivan's illness, a naked man standing before god, with nothing separating them, is a metaphor of Ivan's soul ready to depart earth to face divine judgement. But in the context of the entire film, Saint Basil, a man who refused to own anything, serves as the antithesis of the tsar who seeks to own all, even people's souls.

The "holy fool for Christ" Nikolai, the instigator of the riot in Part I and the aide of Efrosinia, is probably modeled after Saint Basil: he is naked and weighed down with chains. Although this kind of "attire" was typical for the Russian "holy fool for Christ" tradition:


The Christian god and the Orthodox religion aren’t discussed openly but their presence is always felt. Men are struggling with demons inside their souls, while on the walls their shadows interact with holy images.

From the very beginning of the film Ivan usurps the god's authority: he crowns himself during the coronation. His illness (it's ambiguous, whether it's real, or fake, or exaggerated) is the analog of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After Ivan's "resurrection" his shadow becomes ominously huge and disproportionate, as if he has acquired some evil supernatural powers.

Ivan proclaims that he creates the Oprichniki "as god created man in his own image, so I have created men in mine." Malyuta pledges his life to the tsar using almost the same words as apostle Peter before his three denials (and Ivan immediately catches up to this irony).

At the deceased Anastasia's coffin Alexei Basmanov offers his son ("ersatz Anastasia", in Eisenstein's words), like Abraham offered Isaac. Unlike the biblical god, Ivan accepts the sacrifice. (In the never finished Part III, as a reversal of this legend, Ivan would order Fyodor to kill his father - like god sent Abraham to kill his son. Fyodor complies, true to his Oprichiniki vow: "Renounce kith and kin, forget father and mother..." However, what seemed to be a cruel test of loyalty turns into a Morton's fork: "You killed your own father; how can I trust you now?")

Ivan's brief abdication and staying in Alexandrov castle is a reference to the Temptation of Christ in the desert. Jesus Christ rejected the worldly power. Ivan just wants an excuse to rule with absolute power, and he gets it after the people come begging him to return.

In the Fiery Furnace performance Ivan is likened to biblical king Nebuchadnezzar who declared himself god.

The Oprichniki feast is a parody of the Last Supper, with Malyuta as Peter, Fyodor as John - the most beloved disciple, and Alexei as Judas - leaving the table early in order to betray later. (Eisenstein compared Fyodor to John, and Alexei to Judas in his notes.)

Part II finale takes place before a huge mural of the Last Judgment, and later a sinner (Vladimir's killer, young monk Pyotr Volynets) is seen scurrying into the jaws of hell:

But it’s Ivan, not god, who performs the judgement and sends this sinner to hell: Ivan’s giant shadow covers the image of god on the fresco. This correlates with the personal beliefs of historical Ivan IV: unlike European monarchs, Russian Orthodox tsars held not only secular but also religious authority, and Ivan IV, the tsar of the last independent Orthodox state, was a firm believer in his divine mission, and even called himself "The Hand of God".

Pyotr's eventual fate resembles the conversion of apostle Paul: in Part III, after this hellish baptism, Pyotr would have emerged as a devoted follower of the devil-tsar, and torturer Malyuta's right hand. 


Shadows in the film live their own lives and tell their own, parallel tale:

The murals on the walls also play an extremely important role and establish the composition and tone of many scenes.

The throne room is dominated by the huge mural of the Wrathful Angel (Archangel Michael) trampling the Universe under his feet. The mural is so big it can't even fit into a single shot, and Eisenstein's drawings are the only way to see what it's supposed to look like:

During Anastasia's memorial service her murderer Efrosinia stops near a fresco with a sinner cast into hellfire:

Ruthless bishop Pimen with his scull-like face is associated with the Grim Reaper:

In Ivan the Terrible walls have not only ears, but eyes as well - sometimes even too many. Eyes of god, eyes of saints, eyes of people...  The characters are always being watched.

There are even eyes inside eyes if you look closely:

The eyes on the walls are the eyes of god. Since Ivan seeks to usurp the god's place, Malyuta serves as Ivan's ever-watching eye, always looking for any signs of treason:

As the story progresses, the faces on the walls seem more and more disturbing, bizarre and phantasmagorical.

This parade of crazy visages culminates in Fyodor’s mask, with it’s distorted, asymmetrical features - the face of madness. In contrast with icons and frescoes, the mask is eyeless. I absolutely adore this mask: its unsettling appearance wouldn't feel out of place in a horror game or movie (hello, my beloved BioShock I with creepy splicers' masks).


Even though Part III wasn't finished (and what had been filmed was destroyed), Part I and II still form a rounded, coherent narrative, with a lot of parallel scenes. Part I features victorious war with enemies outside the country borders. Part II is about dealing with enemies within: within the country, within the family - and about demons lurking in every human soul. 

Part I places Ivan upon a pedestal. Part II presents a brutal deconstruction of everything built up in Part I. The leitmotif of Part II is inversion, masquerade, chaotic carnival: mock wedding feast, mock coronation, mock tsar... According to M. Bachtin, carnival is a reversal ritual, in which social roles are reversed and norms about desired behavior are suspended.

Part I begins in the cathedral, with a close-up shot of the crown. By the end of Part II we see the same crown in the same cathedral, now cradled by a grieving mother. Joyous, smiling, brightly dressed people in the beginning - and the silent, ominous Oprichniki with their faces hidden under black cowls in the end. Two mothers, fighting for the sake of their children - Anastasia and Efrosinia...

Both parts include the coronation scenes:

Both parts feature a murder: Anastasia and Vladimir. And in both cases the victim is inadvertently killed by the one who loves them the most: Ivan gives poison to Anastasia, Vladimir is stabbed by the assassin sent by his mother.

Initially I wrote here that "both parts feature a murder of an innocent", but there are no truly innocent people in the world of Ivan the Terrible, no black and white, only shades of grey. The characters are not cardboard cutouts, but humans, with their own shortcomings:

Anastasia is usually thought of as a purity incarnate and a gentle soul whose calming presence doesn't let Ivan to exert his cruelty - yet never once do we see her protecting anyone from the tsar's anger. On the contrary, Anastasia encourages Ivan to deal with the boyar by heating his anger against them - so much that they believe that removing her would be enough to change the tsar's politics.
During Ivan's illness Anastasia is not above exploiting Andrei Kurbsky’s feelings, if it can help to win over Efrosinia, secure Andrei's loyalty and establish Ivan’s son as the next tsar.

Vladimir's sole motivation is sloth. He doesn't sin much not due to his inherent goodness but because sinning is too much of a bother. Vladimir is against sending Pyotr as an assassin to Ivan - but only because he can't bear to see his face afterwards. Efrosinia consoles him by saying that they'll execute Pyotr - and Vladimir goes along with her plan.

Anastasia smiles at white swans in Part I - Vladimir reacts to black swans with the same childish amusement:

Both parts include the banquet scenes: the marriage celebration in Part I, the Oprichniki feast in Part II. White swans with silver crowns vs black swans with golden crowns, the festive hymn for the newlywed vs Fyodor's song about murder. The lyrics of these songs echo each other: "Open the gates, greet the newlywed..." vs "Hack the gates with axes, chop the boyars' heads off..."

Fyodor sings about breaking into a boyar mansion, slaughtering everyone, taking valuables and burning down the place. The film doesn't include any gruesome scenes of bloodshed or tortures, but this song is enough to demonstrate how trivial the violence is for the Oprichniki: mass murder is treated as a casual and amusing activity.

During the wedding feast Anastasia wears pearl temple pendants. In Part II these pendants are tellingly attached to Fyodor’s mask, hinting at him replacing Anastasia: holy union blessed by church vs unholy, "unnatural" union with Fyodor. 

However, it's Vladimir who takes the bride's place at the feast in Part II. Both Alexei and Fyodor are shown jealous to the attention Vladimir receives:

Alexei's outburst sets the ground for the future conflict in Part III and foreshadows Alexei's downfall: he doesn't understand Ivan as well as Malyuta does, and he isn't as trusted as Fyodor. Alexei attempts to impose his will on the tsar, just as boyars did; he wants more power for himself.

Fyodor's jealousy is triggered by Ivan's words "No one loves me...". He stops dancing and removes the mask, and Ivan has to reassure him with a glance.

The tsar and his accomplices display almost supernatural understanding, akin to a hive-mind: after Fyodor spots the assassin, Ivan immediately realizes what’s going on, and he doesn't need any words or gestures to give Malyuta the order to act. This whole sequence is eerily played as if they are communicating by means of telepathy.

The Oprichinki feast is filmed in color. The high-contrast red lighting makes this scene surreal as if the action takes place in hell. It is during this episode that Ivan wholly assumes the role of devil, displaying almost supernatural ability to manipulate his followers and enemies alike. The feast reminds of a witches' sabbath, a devilish hallucination. This impression is strengthened when the colorful sequence is interrupted by a brief black-and-white scene with Pyotr waiting inside the church: as if Vladimir for a moment has managed to shake off the hypnosis or to awaken from a nightmare.

The Oprichniki in the finale represent the realm Ivan is building: dark, voiceless, faceless, featureless:

At the same time, this scene also shows Ivan’s loneliness, an absolute solitude of an autocrat ruler. There are no people anymore near Ivan since the Oprichniki are nothing but the tsar’s shadows. Instead of feeling safe, Ivan only sinks deeper into despairing isolation.


There are also Swan Lake allusions: white swans on the wedding feast vs black swans on the Oprichniki's feast, Anastasia in white ("white swan" - a traditional Russian metaphor for a beautiful woman) is replaced by Fyodor in black - like Odette and her twin/double Odile. Odile's ecstatic pas de deux - and Fyodor's fiery dance, both with many repeated rotations. The tsar himself - an imposing bird of prey, like evil sorcerer Rothbart who is traditionally portrayed as hawk/vulture in Russian ballet. 


Anastasia and Fyodor are very similar to each other. Both are so very much in love with Ivan. Both are utterly, fanatically devoted, both self-identify as the tsar’s loyal slaves, both encourage Ivan to follow through with his plans till the end.

For Anastasia her love for Ivan is an uplifting force: compare her dull, unemotional face, her heavy, restrictive garments when we see her as maiden during the coronation - and then her expressive face, comfortable and more simple clothes which don't restrict her movements, after she becomes Ivan's wife:

For Fyodor, after his father shows him the tsar on the battlefied, it is clearly the love at first sight:

Anastasia's death ends the virtuous dawn of Ivan’s reign. Fyodor accompanies Ivan during his "start of darkness" and descent into madness. Anastasia is associated with Ivan's good side. However, Fyodor's personality in the beginning is equally innocent and honest. Both Anastasia and Fyodor in Part I are looking at Ivan with such rapture and exaltation as angels look at god in heaven.

This angelic purity is a stark contrast to Fyodor in Part II: ever since his first appearance on screen it's evident that he is now a fallen angel, being one of the leaders of the tsar's terror squad, the murderous Oprichniki. The exaltation in Fyodor's eyes changes to a dark vengeful obsession.

Part II's Fyodor exhibits scary, outright demonic features: 

Interestingly, it's Fyodor who demands to avenge his predecessor Anastasia. Logically, Fyodor couldn't have learned about poisoning. However, according to the Slavic beliefs, evil demons arise out of the souls of those who died tragic and premature deaths. In the scene in Anastasia's room Fyodor behaves as if he is possessed by the vengeful spirit of the murdered woman, - or, perhaps, just displays demonic omniscience.

Fyodor's sensual performance in female dress, when he is singing about murder and pillage while the other Oprichniki are borderline groping, and then undress him, is the one of most memorable and unsettling episodes of Part II. The true nature of the Oprichnina has nothing to do with monastic orders they seek to emulate.

Despite the Angel-Demon symbolism tied to Anastasia and Fyodor, Ivan the Terrible completely averts the traditional "Good Angel, Bad Angel" dynamics: it’s not as if Ivan were good because his kindhearted wife’s influence tempered his cruelty, and it’s not like after she died Fyodor somehow corrupted Ivan and turned him into a monster. 

On the contrary, both Anastasia and Fyodor don’t influence Ivan. They don’t absolve him of any responsibilities for his actions. At most, they only boost the tsar's confidence: Anastasia encourages Ivan to be firm in subjugating the boyar; later, during Anastasia's memorial service, Fyodor is the only one who supports Ivan in his plan to abdicate and leave the capital.

Anastasia and Fyodor are not some mutually exclusive forces that fight over Ivan and tear him apart between darkness and light. Both love Ivan with the absolutely unquestioning, uncritical kind of love: he goes, they follow. That's why, like satellites, they only reflect the state of Ivan’s soul: Anastasia - optimistic determination, Fyodor - sadistic wickedness. Fyodor's transformation represents Ivan's path from a bright progressive ruler to a devilish tormentor, and shows the destructive, toxic influence which is spreading around the tsar's persona.

Eventually, Ivan brings ruin to both of them: he gives the poison to Anastasia, he causes Fyodor’s death in the unfinished Part III.

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