Ivan Groznyy [Ivan the Terrible] (1945 and 1958) + ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester and Wiener Singakademie / Frank Strobel

Ivan Groznyy [Ivan the Terrible, Part I] (1945) and Ivan Groznyy. Skaz vtoroy: Boyarskiy zagovor [Ivan the Terrible, Part II: The Boyars’ Plot] (1958)
Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein
Writer: Sergei M. Eisenstein
Cast: Nikolay Cherkasov, Lyudmila Tselikovskaya, Serafima Birman, Mikhail Nazvanov, Mikhail Zharov, Amvrosi Buchma, Mikhail Kuznetsov, Pavel Kadochnikov, Andrei Abrikosov, Aleksandr Mgebrov, Maksim Mikhaylov, Vladimir Balashov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Semyon Timoshenko, Aleksandr Rumnyov, Pavel Massalsky, Ada Vojtsik, Erik Pyryev
Part of: Film and Music Cycle in the Konzerthaus
With music by Sergey Prokofiev, played be the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester, sung by the Wiener Singakademie, conducted by Frank Strobel
Seen on: 23.6.2017

In the 16th century, Archduke Ivan (Nikolay Cherkasov) crowns himself Tsar of Russia and sets himself the goal to unite Russia under one rule. Not everybody is taken with his plans and Ivan always has to watch his back – also among the people of his court. There his aunt Efrosinia Staritskaya (Serafima Birman) is plotting against him, hoping to put her own son Dmitri in his place. But also his marriage to Anstasia Romanova (Lyudmila Tselikovskaya) costs him support. But Ivan will do anything to achieve his goals, no matter the cost.

Ivan Groznyy is a monumental two-parter and an absolutely affective and effective piece of propaganda. It’s worth seeing – especially on the big screen, when you got a huge orchestra and choir on stage to (under)score it. The film is too big to do anything on a small scale.

Although the two films were released almost fifteen years apart, they were made at the same time and fit together perfectly – and that is despite the fact that the second part is partly shot in color. Admittedly, though, those color scenes remained a bit of a mystery to me: why certain scenes were in color and others were not didn’t seem to have any deeper meaning, making me assume that it had something to do with the technology of shooting in color or the cost associated with it, and not with any narrative or stylistic choices.

Be that as it may, whether in black and white or in color, the film is visually stunning. Eisenstein especially likes to play with shadows and framing, often making Ivan more than life-sized and certainly an imposing figure no matter where he turns. It’s incredibly impressive.

Everything about the production is larger than life and on a grand scale, perfectly mirroring Ivan’s own project of “uniting” Russia under one rule – and with that, the films become more than just a bit of propaganda. They’re perfectly crafted for adoration of even the cruellest aspects of Ivan’s rule. (I really don’t know why Stalin – who ordered the films – was unhappy about the result and banned Part II.)

This also translates to the musicians on stage who showed up in full force. I didn’t count them, but I’d say there were a hundred people on stage to perform Prokofiev’s score for the film. Which really hammers home the opulence of everything about this.

I was a little surprised because it turns out that the films actually have sound – usually they only show silent films in that program. But the concept with the live music works regardless – and beautifully so.

The film does have a couple of lengths and the propaganda aspect is, of course, (more than) a little uncomfortable. But it definitely was an interesting experience – and a testament to the power of images and film, as well as Eisenstein’s craft.

Summarizing: Definitely worth seeing.

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