By Fred A. Reed
The landscape, dramatic in its simplicity, is one that only Sergei Eisenstein could visualize. And bring to the screen. Brilliant sunlight, closely cropped hillsides sloping toward a shallow lake from which fisherman busily bring in the catch. The accompanying music, by the other Sergei—Prokofiev—, wells up, praising the fertile Russian earth and, by extension, the unshakeable Russian spirit. Little could be more perfect in the semi-autonomous principality of Novgorod in the year 1240.
But the idyllic image belies the political realities of the day. From the east, the conquering Mongols have almost reached the shores of the Baltic, exacting tribute from all in their path. Meanwhile, Swedes (in those days long before Scandinavian social democracy) and Livonians pressed eastward, seeking to incorporate the proto-Russian lands into their kingdoms. Novgorod alone retained its nominal independence among the city-states of North-eastern Europe.
Rounding the flank of a steep hill emerge ranks of horsemen escorting a large-wheeled cart. They carry Tatar lances to which are affixed horses’ tails, and the curved bows with which, riding at top speed, their fellow herder migrants had subjected almost the entire Eurasian land mass. The cart’s sole passenger: the chief of the local Horde. Spotting them from afar, as the music modulates to ominous, the fishermen summon their chief, a square-shouldered blond man of noble bearing, who comes splashing ashore.
Who could doubt that this man—Alexander Nevski, played by Nikolai Cherkasov, of whom more later—will soon emerge to champion the fisher-folk and the doughty Eastern-orthodox believers of Novgorod? Not in the least intimidated by the leering, beard-stroking Mongol khan, Alexander offers him an understanding: we have no quarrel with you, he declares in ringing tones, but only with the Teutonic knights (NATO, seen in contemporary context) who threaten our religion and our way of life. Months, perhaps years, of complex negotiations are thus compressed into a few moments of dialogue. The scene is set for epic confrontation, which the two Sergei’s soon deliver.
The adversaries collide on icy Lake Peipus, where the hastily raised army of Novgorod, under Alexander’s command, encounters and destroys the Teutonic Knights, who, with Papal blessing menace the very existence of the infant Russian state.
Beneath a threatening sky, the knights, urged on by ranks of cross-bearing monks and accompanied by a cloaked and malicious semi-dwarf playing a portable pipe organ, advance—tiny figures—across the bottom of the screen. The Novgorodian infantry, meanwhile, charges in dazzling diagonal trajectories, filmed from high angle to accentuate their speed, carried along by Prokofiev’s score.
Faces concealed by helmets with cross-shaped slits, outfitted in heavy armour, the Teutons, for all their lances and broadswords, cannot match the mobility of Alexander’s men. Nor can they, as invaders, match the fighting spirit of volunteers defending their native soil.
As the tide of battle turns, the dastardly Teutons on their armoured steeds are drawn onto thin ice, where they flounder then drown in the ice waters of defeat. And before the spectators’ ravished eyes, a new cinematographic language comes into being, as Prokofiev’s accompanying score rapidly submerges the rasping and growling of the invader’s Germanic sub-Wagnerian themes with the full-throated victory cries and trumpet blasts of Alexander’s combatants. Minor mode gives way to major.
Alexander Nevski, the film, was finished in late 1938. As a pinnacle of cinematographic art, in which image and music are melded into a seamless whole, it had never been equalled. But by the time of its release, Alexander Nevski had suddenly become an incongruity. Designed to heighten public indignation against the threat from Nazi Germany, that threat had been rapidly shoved aside following the Conference in Munich in September of that year.
Doesn’t today feel a bit like 1938?
After viewing the restored and inexpressibly elegant Mosfilm versions of Sergei Eisenstein’s masterworks Alexander Nevski, and Ivan the Terrible, Parts 1 and 2, I’m inclined to think so. Not that I have any direct memory of that year, having entered life and the world several months later.
But recent events in Ukraine have revived discussion, and even sharper disagreement, about the causes of what is called World War II, although it might be more properly called the Second European War. These events, Eisenstein’s films indicate, will lead not only to hostilities, but also to outright war between two major powers. As 1938 and the years that immediately followed were to demonstrate.
Who those powers might be I’ll leave you, dear and gentle reader, to imagine.
Caveat emptor. This brief essay espouses no thesis, supports no party to the conflict. It does attempt to examine the fate of two cinematographic monuments and the ways in which they reflected events and shaped the way we saw—and see—those events. And that, aesthetic frissons aside, is one of the cardinal functions of art. Sergei Eisenstein, of course, knew this only too well. So did, as we will soon see, Josef Stalin.
Late 1938 witnessed Nazi Germany’s announced intention to force what was then Czechoslovakia to hand over its German-speaking borderlands to Berlin. New Teutonic knights were on the march. Failure to agree, Herr Hitler warned, would lead to general mobilisation and to war. As much seemed clear, and that clarity was all that UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, a dying man, had to work with.
The accords signed in September 1938, said Chamberlain, brought “peace in our time.” Mainly they bought time. Time for England to prepare its armed forces, and for France—do not laugh please—to do the same.
Two thousand kilometres east, in Moscow, the reaction was one of alarm. The Soviet leadership may well have suspected that the Western European allies had reached secret agreement with Germany to attack the USSR, rather as Napoleon had done in 1812. This led, in turn, to the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact of August 1939 that sent shock waves across Europe, permitted Germany to build its military capacity in preparation for the attack on the Soviet Union and allowed for Stalin to “buy time” before the Nazi invasion—Operation Barbarossa, the largest offensive operation ever undertaken in warfare—that nonetheless took him by surprise.
(To speculate about European motives in the immediate pre-war years is a perilous enterprise. Even to suggest that Western abhorrence of Communism may have led the Allies to explore arrangements with Hitler can land one in substantial trouble. This I discovered when I consulted a Ukrainian website that labels such speculation as ‘disinformation.’ And given the existence of a Ukrainian government sponsored death squad—of which Chrystia Freeland’s ancestors may have been charter members—that dispenses summary ‘justice’ to those who would question its interpretation of events, there is every reason for caution.)
To summarise: in the late 1930s, yesterday’s archenemy had become today’s unshakable ally. But that ally was all along secretly dealing to double-cross you and conclude an agreement with your mortal foe that now feigned sincerity. Such was the model, and in the process, entire countries were to pass out of existence. Millions fought, many more millions died.
Only then, as NATO, ah er…German forces swept eastward, could Alexander Nevski be shown in Soviet motion picture theaters, exemplifying the indomitable Russian patriotic spirit, which had been kept well in abeyance for two years.
As author of the German-Soviet pact with ultimate responsibility for his country’s fate, Stalin then decreed the Great Patriotic War of which he would be the leader. Not all Russians would fight for the Communist Party, but most would fight for their motherland and they did, ferociously.
In this charged atmosphere Stalin approached Eisenstein with a commission: a biopic of Czar Ivan IV, aptly named “the Terrible”, of whom the Soviet leader was an admirer. And while Alexander Nevski created problems for the director due to shifting geopolitical conditions, Ivan the Terrible would put the filmmaker at odds with Stalin himself.
As for subject matter, Eisenstein could not have hoped for better. Grand Prince of Moscow and Czar, Ivan embodied the qualities essential to the survival of the state. The film sets out to depict, demonstrate and analyse those qualities. Those same qualities, which included ruthlessness and the capacity for political manoeuver, help us grasp why the Chairman of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union appreciated him and responded eagerly to Eisenstein’s project: “Yes,” he would have stated. “The film must proceed.”
Eisenstein’s Ivan, whom we encounter as a boy surrounded by hostile and ambitious hereditary nobles—the Boyars—quickly understands that they will do all the can to frustrate him and neutralize his plans to transform the Principality of Moscow into the Russian kingdom…of which he would be sole ruler.
As plot line, little could be simpler. But only Sergei Eisenstein, alongside Sergei Prokofiev, could have shaped it into a more tortuous, convoluted and highly stylized form. All is displayed through immense close-ups of scheming nobles, unctuous betrayers, foppish Poles, servile and ambitious poltroons and, in counterpoint, sincere and devoted comrades in arms, men of the people who rally to Ivan’s side to serve as his personal militia and/or embryonic national army, the oprichnina.
Cherkasov, who played Alexander Nevski, depicts Ivan as a man surrounded by the devious and the treacherous, a man constantly looking from the corner of his eyes, sweeping the entire great hall or banquet table with his glance. In fact, it could be argued that Ivan the Terrible is a film about the eyeball, what it reveals and to what its points.
(So trying was the role, or rather Eisenstein’s direction of his actors, that Cherkasov suffered a nervous breakdown when filming was complete.)
Like Alexander Nevski, Ivan must deal with Russia’s enemies in succession. Thus he first marches on Kazan, and destroys the power of the Tatar khanate that had long held the motherland in thrall. But unlike Nevski, Ivan’s struggle becomes an internal one. He must consolidate the state. He must take revenge against his aunt Efrosinia, the personification of malevolence, whose retarded son she wishes to install upon the throne, the better to restore power to the Boyars, the oligarchs of yore.
For it is indeed against Efrosinia that Ivan must struggle, but first he must ensure popular support. Withdrawing to a distant monastery, he awaits, hair having turned grey and beard grown long and pointed.
There, in what may be the greatest scene in the history of cinema, the populace come to seek out the Czar and call upon him to return. In his chambers, immense shadows of Ivan and his astrolabe play across the walls. Stepping out onto the monastery portico, clad in a flowing cloak, he surveys the supplicants who have formed an immense serpentine on the snowy wastes, and whose curve is mirrored in the close up of Ivan’s beard arching above them.
The outflow of popular will was exactly what Ivan has calculated, and marks the turning point in his career. He soon verifies that his treacherous aunt has earlier poisoned the Czarina, Ivan’s queen and true bosom companion, and sets about to destroy her by destroying her son.
Was Ivan IV a madman; a power-crazed despot? Or was he, as Stalin surely fancied himself, the stern though providential leader whose strategic and tactical mastery saved the country, though at immense cost?
According to legend, Stalin was incensed at Eisenstein’s laser-sharp focus on the Czar’s personality, his personal army, and—how to put it without committing a historical injustice?—his paranoia. Whatever the answer, Part I was released in 1944, and was seen as a powerful contribution to the war effort. Part II, though completed in 1948, was not released until ten years later, after Stalin’s death.
Thanks to a book originally published in Bengali and later translated and excerpted in a Communist journal, what was said at the meeting between Stalin, Eisenstein and other Soviet cultural luminaries in 1947 is now a part of the historical record.
Stalin. Have you studied History?
Eisenstein. More or less.
Stalin. More or less? I am also a little familiar with history. You have shown the oprichnina incorrectly. The oprichnina was the army of the king. It was different from the feudal army, which could remove its banner and leave the battleground at any moment - the regular army, the progressive army was formed. You have shown this oprichnina to be like the Ku-Klux-Klan.
Eisenstein. They wear white cowls but we have black ones.
Stalin. It is necessary to show historical figures correctly and strongly. (To Eisenstein). You directed Alexander Nevski. It came out very well. The most important thing is to maintain the style of the historical period. The director may deviate from history; it is not correct if he simply copies from the historical materials, he must work on his ideas but within the boundary of style. The director may vary within the style of that historical period.
Zhdanov (the USSR’s leading cultural commissar). Eisenstein is fascinated by the shadows, which distracts viewers from the action), and the beard of Ivan the Terrible and that Ivan the Terrible raises his head too often, so that his beard can be seen.
Eisenstein promised to shorten the beard of Ivan the Terrible in future.
But Eisenstein knew, as we the viewers instinctively also know, that the shadows and the beard are what make Ivan the Terrible the masterpiece it is. It is they who transform the historical Czar into a man who even today casts his long shadow over Russia.