Director Sergei Eisenstein’s 1944 masterpiece “Ivan the Terrible, Part 1,” presents a strong but brooding protagonist as Ivan, who unifies feuding principalities in Russia’s 16th century to fight the Kazans, Germans and other enemies. But as Czar Ivan struggles to consolidate his power, the boyars, a conniving bunch of hypocrite noblemen, work to undermine him.
Eisenstein tells the story with speeches and reaction shots, along with lots of expressive shadows. The shadows appear to move independently of the characters, which implies that their projection fans much larger than the czar into the realm of history. Perhaps this wartime Soviet film meant to imply that the strength of the Russian state stems from the heart and soul of struggle and not from a political figure.
It may not be easy to watch this slow moving exercise in mannered poses and shadows, but I could not stop watching it and I want to watch it again soon. The film captures the feeling of those exotic times when chaos and intrigue reigned under constant threat of invasion, and every man seemed to be out for himself. Despite the biographical context, the film stresses that one idea unites rather than one man unites.
I expected the film to present a climatic battle scene when Ivan’s army goes up against the Kazans, but except for a few explosions and flying arrows, the battle ends quickly. The real battle, the force of Ivan’s ideas of a citizen revolution against the boyars, is ably told by Eisenstein’s static filmmaking style. Ivan the Terrible, Part 1, is terrific.