The Icon and the Idol The Finale of Sergei Eisenstein

By Michael Toscano

Russian memory knows Tsar Ivan IV, first tsar of all the Russias (1530 to 1584), as a dark figure: a man of unnatural lusts, a diseased mind and vampiric tastes for blood. Ivan is known as Grozny, meaning “awesome” or “terrible.” But no matter: Josef Stalin was eager for a Marxist-Leninist retelling of Ivan’s story. Ivan was the first Bolshevik, the people’s champion; victor over court reactionaries, the aristocratic boyars, whose greedy appeals to tradition crippled Russian unity and diminished its greatness. Ivan was a war hero, liberator of Russian lands and champion over Western powers. His victorious maneuvers against court enemies and foreign invaders sewed the nationalist seeds of what would one day become the Soviet Union. Stalin wanted an apologia for Ivan, but really it was an apologia for Stalin, and the director chosen to tell this story knew this all too well.

For the task, Stalin chose Sergei Eisenstein, and he had good reason to believe that Eisenstein would produce a magnificent film, delivered to his liking. The director’s talent was plain for all to see—he was the man behind the silent masterpiece The Battleship Potemkin (1925), the greatest Bolshevik film ever made, admired in Moscow, Berlin, Paris, London, New York, Hollywood and Tokyo. None other than Charlie Chaplin called it the “best film in the world.”

But, despite Eisenstein’s fame across the globe and among the avant-garde circles of the Soviet Union (and no matter Stalin’s own quiet pleasure with the director),  his panache brought about its own peculiar troubles. For Stalin was a man who tolerated no deviation from his preferences, neither stylistically nor ideologically. He shut down production of every film Eisenstein began between the years 1929 and 1938. The director redeemed himself only with Alexander Nevsky, a technically savvy but lifeless paean to Stalinism “based” on the life of the thirteenth-century Russian saint who repelled Teutonic invaders—Germans—marching on Novgorod. “You’re a good Bolshevik after all!” Stalin is said to have exclaimed to Eisenstein upon seeing Nevsky. By the end of a very long and tortuous decade for the director, Stalin had quashed Eisenstein’s most idiosyncratic tastes and impulses. Stalin had found—made, he believed—his great director, the man truly worthy of Ivan the Terrible.

Eisenstein undoubtedly experienced the matter differently. As his film Ivan the Terrible (1944) would eventually illustrate, Stalin misjudged his achievement. Somewhere during the planning stages, Eisenstein transformed Stalin’s anticipated paean to nationalist dictatorship into an accusation of demonic tyranny and senseless murder leveled against Stalin himself.

But lest we imagine Eisenstein innocent, remember, Eisenstein was not just a filmmaker, he was a propagandist. More precisely, art was propaganda, and cinema, the most sensuously potent art, was the greatest art. “Remember that for us the most important of all arts is the cinema.” That was Lenin’s assessment in 1922. Eisenstein wholeheartedly agreed. The Bolsheviks—Lenin, but especially Stalin—were deeply sensitive to the power that images had over people. If a revolutionary party, an elite and dialectically liberated inner circle, is the engine and order of revolution, then images and image makers must be tools in the  party’s hands. They must be controlled and ordered to the  party’s ends, and rival imageries must be snuffed out. And as the circle of revolutionary elite eventually contracted into the personality of one man, so too did Soviet imagery, which came to completely orbit Stalin’s preferences.

In his heyday, Eisenstein had thrown himself into the task of erecting the new imagery and tearing down the old, rooting out the beauties of his childhood: the rich and vast visual world of old Russia, which wound tightly round the Russian soul. Icons were the images of the peasant, and Eisenstein strove to replace them. It was believed that they linked the visible with the invisible, bridged the Slavic peoples and the heavenly hierarchy. They were the symbolic and visual center of Russian orthodoxy—and were outlawed, smashed and tossed into bonfires. Before the advent of the Soviet Union, every peasant’s home, however humble, had one. They were windows into heaven, they said. But now the windows were closed. And instead, Eisenstein gave them Soviet montage, a cinematic expression of Marxist dialectics in which each individual shot is negated and transformed through opposition to the shots surrounding it. Soviet montage deemed individual images inert and dull and without value, and placed all their dramatic potential on their progression, collision, collapse and recombination.

Eisenstein’s fervor, however, as alluded to above, could not save him from Stalin’s despotic tastes. Stalin hated Soviet montage—almost as much as he hated Russian orthodoxy. Stalin preferred and programmatically furthered socialist realism, a hollow Soviet classicism whose sole subject was, in one way or another, Stalin, presented with a wholesome spin. For a very long decade, 1929 to 1938, Eisenstein’s name, along with Soviet montage, became a curse on the lips of the party. Stalin loomed over everything, bringing all other powers to heel, including the power of Eisenstein’s cinematics. Eisenstein went from Soviet cinema’s blazing sun to its most humiliated man. In 1938, from the depths of that humiliation, he offered Stalin a gift: Alexander Nevsky. And on the strength of Nevsky, he was commissioned to make Ivan the Terrible.

Eisenstein planned a trilogy, which on the surface followed a Stalinist arc. Part I: Ivan wins the favor of his people. Part II: Ivan brings order to Russia by outmaneuvering the conspirators of his court. Part III: Ivan defeats his foreign enemies and wins his way to the Baltic. This, however, is the trilogy’s shallowest layer of meaning. Ivan is victorious, but his victories ruin him. At the trilogy’s conclusion, he is a demonic figure, triumphant but alone, with all of his natural relations dead or cut away and “the people” who adore him swallowed up by his intrigue and his wars. There is no friend remaining, by the trilogy’s end, to glory in his magnificence.

The trilogy was, unfortunately, never finished. Part I was awarded the Stalin Prize in January 1946. Stalin suppressed Part II just eight months later. It was finally released in 1958 as part of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, ten years after Eisenstein’s death. The production of Part III was halted by a severe heart attack the night Eisenstein finished editing Part II—but his charming sketches, the script, prints of film shot from early stages of production and his numerous notes have survived. Part III would, no doubt, also have been suppressed.

Part I’s conclusion thrilled Stalin. It was a Stalinized version of a deeply strange episode in the (deeply strange) life of Ivan when, in 1564, he quit the throne to protest the nobles and the Russian Church, whose cries for moderation and mercy, he claimed, hampered his use of the sword to punish “traitors”—only to have the throne restored to him by churchmen and nobles who begged Ivan to reclaim his crown on the grounds of natural right and succession. Ivan’s restoration marks one of the most evil times in Russian history.

And Eisenstein transforms this hellish period into an arresting image of the strange love that men, weak and strong, have for an autocrat in his unshared magnificence. In Ivan the Terrible, it is not the Church or the boyars who grant Ivan absolute power—it is the doting people, who sing to Ivan, “O return! O return! Father of us all!” Joan Neuberger, analyzing this scene in her fascinating commentary on the film’s politics, recounts, “While writing the screenplay and reading the historical sources, Eisenstein repeatedly scrawled in his notebooks his own bewilderment, ‘Why do the people love Ivan?’”

The finale of Part I is Stalinism at its purest. Stalin was delighted and, as noted above, awarded it the Stalin Prize, the highest honor a Soviet film could possibly receive. Part II would please him far less. Upon seeing the film, Stalin was appalled to discover that Eisenstein had made the bizarre but powerfully effective choice of filming Part II’s climax in color stock and the rest of the film, couched around it, in the rich black and white that he had used in Part I. This was Eisenstein’s first and last experiment with color (the stock had been left behind by retreating German soldiers), and Eisenstein made it count.

The film begins immediately following the conclusion of Part I. Buoyed by the people’s love, Ivan returns to Moscow and sweeps into the Kremlin surrounded by the oprichniki, his newly formed band of private assassins, who dress in all-black, their eyes obscured by the shadows of their yawning hoods, a costume to make clear their malevolence. “Therefore as God created man in his own image, so I have created men in mine,” Ivan boasts before the trembling boyars. “These plans come not from God, but from the devil!” warns Phillip of Moscow, a holy monk who resists Ivan’s use of political terror to the end. Phillip will be martyred.

From the heraldic conclusion of Part I, Eisenstein drives the trilogy underground. Schemes are pit against counterschemes, and conspirators whisper in dark corners. After a deep plunge into gloom, at the climax Eisenstein leaps suddenly into color: a red that stretches between bright crimson and orange, a blue that presses near to green, and a yellow swinging from mustard to gold. The scene is the oprichniki feast, a shadow of the overflowing beauty of Ivan’s wedding celebration in Part I. In a literal mockery of the soft Anastasia, Ivan’s poisoned wife, an oprichnik dons her wedding dress and sways about the room, sending coquettish glances toward the tsar, who darts his own knowingly back. Like a gamesome lover, the oprichniki swirl around ersatz Anastasia, flipping, stomping and rolling in a bawdy ballet, beckoning him-her to the bedchamber. The colors float about the room and coat the oprichniki, switching among black, red, orange, yellow, gold, blue and green, casting the scene—it feels—into another world.

The oprichniki sing a song about the joys of murdering the boyars:

The axes skim the necks of the boyars

The axes, the axes…

Strike with the axes!

The scene made Stalin livid. On the evening of February 25, 1947, Eisenstein was ushered into the general  secretary’s study, where he waited with two high-level party officials, Wenceslas Molotov and Andrei Zhdanov. Stalin excoriated the film:

Your portrayal of the oprichnina is wrong. The oprichnina was a royal army…a progressive army. You make the oprichnina look like the Ku Klux Klan…. Tsar Ivan was a great and wise ruler…. [His] wisdom lay in his national perspective…. In showing Ivan the Terrible the way you did, aberrations and errors have crept in…

Of the three critics, Stalin returned most frequently to Eisenstein’s characterization of Ivan and his henchman: “Ivan the Terrible was very cruel. You can depict him as a cruel man, but you have to show why he had to be cruel.… [And the] oprichniki looked like cannibals when they were dancing…”

Cannibals? Almost. They were devils. The sweep of the oprichniki was orchestrated to mirror-churning flame. The intense red and yellow are the colors of hellfire. The bluish-green is harder to place, but it has the uncanny air of sickness and decay, at once everywhere and attached to nothing in particular. This is a burning and dying place, and everything is artificial. During the fiery dance, Eisenstein keeps the camera low and points it tightly upward. Looking down upon the devilish oprichniki are icons: angels and saints. Heaven watches in cool judgment of Hell, which writhes in flame below.

As Eisenstein played with the concept of the film during prep and planning, he imagined the symbolic, narrative and visual possibilities of using iconography (the very kinds of images he once worked to replace) to frame the action. He designed to envelop his scenes with saints, angels, the Blessed Virgin, Christ and even (cutting against Orthodox tradition) depictions of God the Father. And Eisenstein throws us immediately into this visual world, setting the first scene of Part I, Ivan’s coronation, in an ornate cathedral. It is simply breathtaking: a burst of shades, between the poles of black and white, seemingly every aspect of gray—dozens of icons, angels and saints, floor to ceiling, peering out from columns and sweeping across the shot in arches above. A beam of light cuts across the cathedral, illuminating the icons and inflaming the image—if it wasn’t black and white, you’d swear the shot was gold. “All the frescoes,” Eisenstein wrote, as he prepped the film, “should thematically correspond to what is happening in the scene. As if composed…of [the action].”

What does it mean to Eisenstein to correspond an icon to a scene’s action? In Part II, to provide one illustrative example, a plot to assassinate Ivan is being hatched by frightened boyars and churchmen, to avenge the murder of their kin, in a dark chamber somewhere deep in the belly of a concealed catacomb. Eisenstein, again, positions the camera low and angles it tightly upward so that the conspirators hang over the shot, and he casts hot spotlights onto their faces—their fear and anger burning brightly against the enveloping blackness. An angel of death painted in a vivid white fresco on the ceiling hovers knowingly over them, and Eisenstein positions Archbishop Pimen of Novgorod, dressed also in white, so that the angel’s wings appear to stretch outward from his shoulders. Eisenstein merges the archbishop and the angel of death symbolically by the mise-en-scène.

For Eisenstein, Ivan the Terrible was a visual and theoretical turn: a recapturing of the imagery of his youth, a nascent rebellion against his own Marxist aesthetic and a kind of reconciliation with imagery itself. As Eisenstein wrote toward the end of his life, “In my early films I was…fascinated by the mathematically pure course of montage…and less by the ‘thick’ stroke of the accentuated shot,” adding, “Fascination with the shot, strange…though it may be, came later.” That fascination was sparked during his travels in Mexico in 1931, and was brought most fully to life years later with Ivan the Terrible.

Reflecting years later on the trilogy’s climax in Part III (the scene was shot and photographs survive, along with the original script and storyboard), Eisenstein recounted a memory from his childhood, which had lingered in the back of his mind for many years but which he had left unexplored—until, that is, he needed it at the end of his career to shed light on its finale. It was the memory of a priest, Father Pavel, and the intensity of his prayers during Holy Week. Father Pavel “went through Holy Week as if suffering the Lord’s passion. I remember in tears of torment at vigils of incessant prayer…[his] forehead exuded droplets of blood in the candlelight when he read the Acts of the Apostles.” During planning for the final installment, explained Eisenstein, this “knot of personal experience, which always flickered weakly in my memory like the dull glow of an icon lamp, burned at their strongest.” And he would put this burning memory to use to depict Ivan’s confession, a dramatic twist in Ivan’s life when, at the very end, he confessed to the deaths of all those whom he had killed.

In the twilight of Ivan IV’s rule, he became so frightened at the dark state of his soul that he commanded his scribes to draw up lists of all whom he had executed and sent them with chests of gold to monasteries throughout the empire to ensure prayers for the dead. When names could not be recalled, raw numbers were listed:

At Ivanovo Bolshoye seventeen people were killed, fourteen of whom met their deaths struck down by hand.… At Bezhetsky Verkh sixty-five people were killed, twelve of them struck down by hand. Thou Thyself, O Lord, know their names.

In the script for Part III, Eisenstein sets Ivan’s confession (courageous act even to include it) immediately following the sack of Novgorod. The tsar moves to punish the city, because (in Eisenstein’s version) it has allied with his enemies, the Livonians, in a war for the Baltic. As Ivan and the oprichniki advance toward the city, they kill every living creature they happen upon—not only scouts but also cows, dogs and even birds. Ivan annihilates Novgorod.

Cut to Ivan’s confession. The crumpled tsar squirms on his belly before a fresco of the Last Judgment, begging forgiveness from the Heavenly Tsar who presides in Justice over his vassal. “Have mercy, O Lord, on the deceased,” a monk chants. “Anna. Irene. Alexis…. Prince Boris. Prince Vladimir. Andrew.” Sweat breaks across Ivan’s body, and God the Father hangs massively over him, surrounded by his heavenly host, as the damned writhe in perdition’s flames below. “Vasily and wife. Andrew and wife. Their son Lazarus.” Ivan quakes on his knees, diminutive before the full height and breadth of the fresco above him (some twenty-five feet high and thirty-five wide). “Pimen, Prelate of Novgorod.… The cook Moliva.” His body is bent so that his contorted frame matches the twisting licks of hellish flame at the base of the image; Ivan’s outstretched arms reach only as high as Hell. “Fifteen women slain in Novgorod. The names also of these, Thou, O Lord, shalt reckon.”

Ivan’s contrition, however, is short-lived. He pardons himself before the Heavenly Tsar with modernish justifications: “Not for self. Not for greed’s sake. For the country.” And when he discovers that his confessor is a boyar spy, his sorrow evaporates altogether, and he renews his war against the Livonians, drives them to the sea and wins his way to the Baltic. (This is Peter the Great’s achievement, but Eisenstein grants it to Ivan.) In the trilogy’s unfilmed conclusion, Ivan ceases to have any Ivan-ness to him and is composed almost entirely of Stalin, who actually defeated his enemies at home and abroad, unlike Ivan, who was repelled by the Livonians to the end.

In the final scene (Eisenstein’s storyboard is visually eloquent, as always), Ivan stands by himself on the shoreline, victorious, a man of destiny whose friends, family and fellow Russians were destroyed by his own hand or in the turbulence of his military campaigns in his drive to unite the Russian lands. In the margins of the sketch, Eisenstein jotted one word and put it in the form of a question: “Alone?” Ivan (Stalin) had consumed everything for the “greater good,” achieving not glory but demonic loneliness. This, at least, is Eisenstein’s own interpretation, as he explained in a letter addressed to the critic Yuri Tynyanov. As Eisenstein put it, the trilogy’s underlying theme is “the tragic inevitability of autocracy and loneliness.” It is relayed that on March 1, 1953, Stalin collapsed from a severe brain hemorrhage, and lay on his bedchamber floor, alone, covered in his own urine, some say for eight, others for eighteen, hours before he was found by his people, who were huddled outside the door, too frightened to come in and aid him. Stalin died four days later.

As for Eisenstein, at the moment of Stalin’s death, he had been dead already for five years. After his heart attack in 1946, disgraced, too weak to matter (and to film) but allowed to linger on, he wrote the lion’s share of his eight-hundred-page memoir, none of which mentioned Stalin, despite his being the key fact of Eisenstein’s latter years. Eisenstein did, however, rail time and again against the many “father” figures, as he called them, in his life whom he simultaneously loved and despised: Freud (his intellectual father), Vsevelod Meyerhold (the famed acting teacher and adopted father) and Mikhail Eisenstein (his flesh and blood). These bitternesses were leveled at Freud, but the sentiment could have been held for all three: “The suspicion and jealousy of a tyrant. Merciless towards anyone who was not steadfast in the doctrine. Especially towards anyone who tried to follow his own deviation, in the context of his own ideas which did not coincide with those of the teacher in every respect…. Corresponding accusations of renegadism, of perverting his teaching. Excommunication. Anathema.” And for Meyerhold: “The same circle of fanatics, drawn from the students around him. The same intolerance of any symptoms of independence. The same methods of ‘spiritual inquisition.’ The same ruthless destruction. Rejection. Excommunication of those whose only crime had been to speak in their own voice…” And his father…well, you get the idea. And despite all this, no explicit mention of Stalin, the “Father of us all”—but he haunts the pages.

Ivan’s confession was incomplete, yes, and his contrition passing, yes. But the shot of Ivan trembling before the fresco of the Last Judgment, his victims named and confessed, is still the most subversive shot of film ever taken in the Soviet Union. No amount of soul searching over the means and ends of political power was permissible under Stalin, a fact that led to the disappearance of endless thousands, a number of whom were Eisenstein’s close personal friends. But something more important than a personal act of subversion, I argue, is happening here. When Eisenstein was preparing Ivan the Terrible, he found a tyrant who eerily mirrored his own, but in a key way was unlike his own: toward the end of his life, Ivan kneeled and confessed. He was a tyrant, however despicable, who bowed his head; who bowed his head—crucially for Eisenstein—before an image. And not just any image, but one deeply and more authentically Russian than his own cinematic propaganda could ever be; imagery vastly more powerful than his own, which could do what his films, however excellent, never could: bring the state to its knees, if only for a moment.

Michael Toscano is the executive director if the Institute for Family Studies. 

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