Three movies by Russia’s classic filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948), give an account of the country’s history during the first of its two ruling dynasties. Eisenstein made only about ten films, as his career coincided with the thirty-year reign of Joseph Stalin (r. 1922-52). In his early films, he concentrated his lens on the Russian Revolution in the first decades of the 20th century. His last three films turned to the distant past and the lives of Alexander Nevsky (13th century) and Ivan the Terrible (16th century).

Russian history, beginning just over a thousand years ago, is defined by defense of the homeland against Scandinavian forces from the northwest and the Mongol Horde from the northeast. Alexander Nevsky emerged as a culture hero during this time, seeking to unite the Russian people against these invaders. He played a role not unlike that of King Arthur in England. He was a unifier and a paragon of the emerging national ideal. In this time, the historical spotlight passes from Kiev and Novgorod to Moscow.

Alexander Nevsky  (1938) – Eisenstein

Alexander Nevsky (1220– 63)  in a village churchyard

Alexander Nevsky (1220– 63)
in a village churchyard

Set in circa 1242, the film opens with Alexander as a fisherman who attempts to attend to his own nets, though he is also Prince of this realm and a hero of the war with the Swedes.  A representative of the Mongol Horde arrives in a charming little Chinese wagon and offers him a command, but he refuses. He would like to drive the Mongols from this land but he feels that the German threat is more pressing. Soon there is an invasion of the city of Pskov by the Teutonic Knights of Germany. It is a brutal conquest including the throwing of babies into a fire.  Alexander and his people express a rising determination to never surrender their beloved Rus to foreign invaders (an allegory of the resistance to the coming invasion of Hitler’s army). Next the city of Novgorod is under siege from the Germans and emissaries come to Alexander to plead with him to raise a peasant army. The peasants rise up from everywhere, and they are singing. This movie is made on an operatic concept. The actor playing Nevsky is tall, striking and full-voiced (he seems to be the Charlton Heston of Russia). Almost all of the brief dialogue is declamatory. The action is generally covered by choral singing or the much too lighthearted Prokofiev film score, sounding more like music for a puppet show.

When the time of battle arrives, April 5, 1242, it is still winter and the opposing armies are to clash on a frozen lake. The Teutonic Knights wear white robes with black crosses and ridiculous buckets on their heads with crosses cut in front.  Their leader is called the Grand Master. The two armies are huge, consisting of cavalry and foot soldiers, and it appears that many extras were employed. The orgy of men hacking at one another goes on for a very long time. Finally, Alexander’s men put the Germans to rout (for reasons that are not clear). The fleeing knights suddenly begin to fall through cracks in the ice and drown like Pharaoh’s soldiers in the Red Sea. There is a triumphal procession into the city and Alexander dispenses justice to his enemies.  

Wikipedia suggested a nicely restored edition of this movie but the version sent by Netflix in August 2012 was washed out and the subtitles were barely readable. The DVD jacket declares that this film is “considered the masterpiece of Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s career.” While writing this review, I discovered a much better rendition of the film on YouTube, but no English subtitles. The backstory is that this film was commissioned by Stalin as a means for rallying the Russian people to oppose Hitler. The points are made with a heavy hand. For all the stiffness and artificiality of the production, it is easy to imagine the impact it must have had on traditional Russian identity.

Ivan the Terrible Part I – Sergei Eisenstein

Ivan the Terrible, State Tretyacov Gallery, Moscow

Ivan the Terrible, State Tretyacov Gallery, Moscow

Sergei Eisenstein wrote, directed, and produced this silent film in Russia during the worst years of World War II. The black and white photography is startlingly vivid and the production values are of the highest quality.  This is the story of Ivan IV, Tsar of all the Russias (r. 1533-84). It opens with his coronation. The drama is dire and declamatory, decidedly Asiatic in style. The Tsar declares his intention to unite Russia against the enemies from within (the boyars) and from beyond (Mongol Kazan). He mounts a massive campaign against Kazan. He has barrels of gunpowder for his very large cannons. The boyars continue to plot against him. Returning from victory over Kazan, Ivan falls ill and appears to die while those around him maneuver for power, then he revives and takes charge. Now the Tsarina falls ill and the intrigues increase. She is poisoned and dies. The Tsar is in despair and doubts his ability to rule. His advisors counsel him to surround himself with men he can trust and “break the boyars.” He accepts his destiny and dedicates his life to the will of the people. Abandoning Moscow, he waits for a call to lead his country once again. A massive procession plods through the snow carrying icons to beg their Tsar to return. He calls for his horse and sets out to reunite Russia.

Ivan the Terrible, Part II  (1958) – Eisenstein

There is a recap of Ivan’s ploy of going into exile so the public will demand his return with broader dictatorial powers. A powerful leader is preferred over the chaos of internal fighting. It opens with the coronation of Ivan, “the founder of the Tsardom of Muskovy,” in 1547. The film has begun in black and white. There is a long scene in the highly stylized court of the Polish King, Sigismund, where plans are being made to rid Europe of the threat of barbarian Russia. News comes of Ivan’s return from exile and there is panic. There is a flashback to Ivan’s youth in Moscow where he lived in fear of his life and he saw his mother poisoned.

St. Basil's Cathedral, built by Ivan the Terrible to commemorate his victory at Kazan

St. Basil’s Cathedral, built by Ivan the Terrible to commemorate his victory at Kazan

In the middle of the film, now in color, Ivan hosts a large opera/pantomime at his Kremlin palace. It is a version of the Feast of Fools. He has designs on exposing the conspiracy of his aunt, Euphrosinia, to eliminate him and put her feeble-minded son, Prince Staritsky, on the throne. He calls the son “the fool” and conducts a ceremony where the crown is placed on the mock czar’s head, naming him “Tsar Vladimir.” The fool is then commanded to lead a candle procession to the cathedral. Ivan built the Cathedral of St. Basel on Red Square in Moscow, just outside the Kremlin wall. In the course of this pageantry, both Euphrosinia and her son are put to death. Ivan exults in his mission to unite all of Russia under his rule.

There was to be a Part III but Eisenstein died before it could be finished. This film was made under the patronage of Joseph Stalin who greatly admired Ivan VI. Roger Ebert writes an interesting coverage of the two Ivan the Terrible films.

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