Even if your Russian history is a bit shaky, you probably remember the names of few emperors, or Tsars, from high school European History like Peter and Catherine (both who get “the Great” tagged on to their name). Or maybe you’ve seen the animated film, Anastasia, which takes some creative liberties with the Romanov legacy. But, if you ever learned about Ivan Vasilyevich, (“Ivan the Terrible”), Russia’s first Tsar, you probably can’t forget it! Ivan is credited as a patron of the arts and founder of the great Russian state. He even centralized power. However, he was also aggressively warlike, voracious in his appetites, and prone to periods of violent outbursts. (For instance, he supposedly killed his son, Ivan, as well as his unborn grandson).
During World War II, Joseph Stalin commissioned Soviet filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, to produce a film on Ivan the Terrible. Why choose this moment to make a movie about a famous (and violent) dictator? Well, if you are also a famous (and violent) dictator, you might try to use a movie to explain your leadership choices. According to Joan Neuberger, Stalin wanted Ivan the Terrible to justify state terror in the 16th century (under Ivan’s leadership) and in the 20th century (under his leadership). As head of the Soviet Union (the U.S.S.R.), Stalin believed he was reviving Ivan the Terrible’s legacy.
In her new book, This Thing of Darkness, Neuberger unravels how Eisenstein conceptualized and produced the unfinished film by sifting through the filmmaker’s archive in Moscow. She argues that Sergei Eisenstein’s unfinished masterpiece, Ivan the Terrible, was no ordinary movie. The film’s politics, style, and epic scope aroused controversy. It is the only contemporary analysis of Stalin that we have.
The controversy was not because of the relationship of the movie to the government. In fact, during World War II, the Soviet government actively used visual propaganda as a means to persuade the people of the strength of Stalin’s rule: images of him were everywhere. This took the form of monuments, paintings, and printed images. When the first part of the film was released in 1945, not only did Stalin approve of it, but it won the Stalin Prize. The second part, however, did not receive the same support. It was banned. Eisenstein never completed the third part—he died in 1948.
While the historical context of its production history could fill an entire book on its own, the film’s status as a cinematic masterpiece deserves equal attention. Its provocative novelty, both in its aesthetics and content, continues to astound critics. Eisenstein experimented with acting, music, frame, composition, lighting, camerawork, and editing.
If you watch the film, you might find yourself wondering, how could a ruler treat his country that way? How can an innocent child can become a bloody tyrant? Well, that’s exactly what Eisenstein would want you to do, to interrogate the legacy of Russian dictators.
- Check out the Cornell University Podcast interview with Dr. Neuberger