Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible


Joan Neuberger is a professor of Russian history at the University of Texas at Austin. She’s the author of numerous books and articles on Russian social and cultural history and is the editor of the public history website, Not Even Past and co-host of the history podcast series, 15 Minute History. Her most recent book is This Thing of Darkness: Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia published by Cornell University Press.


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This abridged version of the interview has been edited for clarity.

The title of your new book, This Thing of Darkness, Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia, is taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. What is the significance of this title, This Thing of Darkness, for Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible.

There’s a lot of Shakespeare in Eisenstein, although he’s actually famous for saying that he preferred Ben Johnson and some of the other contemporaries. But he writes about Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s ideas are in all of his films, and there’s a lot of Shakespeare in Ivan the Terrible.

Also, when I was trying to figure out which stories I wanted to tell in this book, The Tempest was everywhere. This was the height of postcolonial reinterpretations of the play, so people were doing really interesting things with it, and I kept running into it. I ran into it at Shakespeare festivals in small towns I was passing through. There was a Helen Mirren film with a female Prospero. I started listening to Emma Smith’s amazing Shakespeare podcast and ran across Stephen Greenblatt’s great essay on power in Shakespeare. Connections with Shakespeare, but particularly The Tempest, were everywhere.

Why? Because The Tempest asks us to think about power, about losing power, about using magic to retain power, and about the magic of books, which Eisenstein absolutely shared. In The Tempest, Prospero’s exiled to this island after his brother Antonio usurped his power and sent him off to sea in a little boat. And when he gets there, he takes over this island and he starts shaping everything he can to his will.

All this really helped me think about how great artists, who aren’t always the most articulate political theorists, think about and represent power. Specifically, in Eisenstein’s case, Ivan is ambivalent about ruling and he’s especially ambivalent about the violence that he thinks he needs to rule, about what it means to rule, especially to rule over others.

On the island, Prospero tries to educate a creature, the only native of the island that we see, the so-called monster, Caliban. But Caliban is really ambivalent about the education. He’s not as grateful as Prospero thinks he should be and he thinks that he’s the islands ruler. This island that Prospero’s taken away from him. And so he plots with two other men to kill Prospero. Something that’s always represented as a farce.

So my title, the line “this thing of darkness,” is Prospero talking to the other men in this plot, the other men’s lord, after they’ve foiled the murder plot. And he says, “Well, those two are yours, you know them, but this thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine.” And it seems a little bit like a throwaway line. You know, they’re yours, this one’s mine, I get it. But the thing is that he never really does acknowledge Caliban as his responsibility or recognize the role he’s played in making Caliban what he is. That’s something that Ivan does over and over and I think is at the heart of Eisenstein’s portrait of Ivan.

It raises one of the central questions that Eisenstein wants to think about in Ivan. When Ivan’s various enemies challenge him, when they oppose the centralization of power, are they acting out of pure greed? Or out of power hunger? Out of selfishness? Out of monstrousness? Or, has Ivan, in fact, provoked them? Is he responsible for their resistance to his policies?

Sometimes Ivan acts like he does acknowledge his responsibility for the disorder and the violence that result, but he always goes back to his original plan. His mission is to centralize the state under one man rule, edinоderzhaviе, and to centralize the state at the expense of traditional leaders in the church, to found the modern state, and to treat his opponents to his plans with ruthless violence. Ivan’s own responsibility is really something that Eisenstein wants us to be thinking about while we’re watching the film. So in that sense, that title just made perfect sense.

And then also, in some ways, more to the point, The Tempest asks us to think about what it means to be human and what it means to be superhuman. Eisenstein saw Ivan’s crisis, his inner divisions, his inner contradictions, all those things, as things that we all share. He wanted us to see Ivan as human, with human thoughts and feelings, and when he tries to elevate himself above others as superhuman, which takes place in Part Two, it turns out that it doesn’t really solve his problems or slake his thirst for power, but creates new crises at every turn.

In that sense too, “this thing of darkness,” I think, is what Eisenstein is saying is a human trait in all of us. But at the end, Prospero leaves his magic powers behind, along with his need for revenge, another major theme in Ivan, and he embraces his humanness. Something that Ivan gestures to but doesn’t really do. And that giving up a magical power and embracing mere human power is Prospero’s salvation. Ivan remains “a thing of darkness” even in all of his triumphs.

I was thinking the title was also a commentary on how much obsession Eisenstein pours into making this film. But also, the wider context of Soviet Russia in which the film is being made. You make this point early on where, this is a film about violence in a context of a country that has experienced extreme violence since the beginning of the 20th century. I thought that “This Thing of Darkness” is also a reference to the wider context in which this film is made.

You’re absolutely right. The way Eisenstein works is that, this is a film that is constructed on multiple networks of images. “This thing of darkness” is one of those, and we can look at the title, we can look at this idea from the point of view of Ivan himself.

But you’re absolutely right that, for Eisenstein, he’s talking about the entire context in which he’s working and he witnessed enormous violence in his life and he was certainly aware, if there’s any historiographical question here, of the terror which caused him to lose numerous friends, his mentor, Vsevolod Meyerhold and others. Isaac Babel who he worked with. He had no illusions about Stalinism. And there’s no question that, that this also refers to the whole context of Stalin and Stalinism.

You are a historian and you’re treating this film as a historian, for the most part. When you started to approach this project as a historian, what did you find? How did people understand this film and how it was made? And what did you provide to it in bringing a historical analysis?

I think the main thing I did is go back into the archives and provide a reading of the documents that exist to understand what Eisenstein was trying to do in Ivan the Terrible.

Critics have generally understood the film in a number of ways that have changed over the course of the last 70 years. Let me just say that Part One was released at the end of 1944, and it won a Stalin Prize. Then Part Two was finished a year later and it was immediately banned, and only released in 1958. And Part Three was never finished, partly because Eisenstein died in 1948.

The reception is really complicated, but almost everyone who looks at this film, or writes about the film, writes about it using textual analysis and film analysis. I do that too. In fact, my main argument is that we can’t look at it just as a film or just as a piece of history. Eisenstein really believed that what he was doing was historical and artistic, and that the two were inseparable. I really try and follow that through the whole thing.

Most people outside the Soviet Union who saw the film in 1946, saw it as straight propaganda. Eisenstein’s Ivan was a monumental leader. The film justified the way Ivan ruthlessly dealt with his enemies. And overall, the film supposedly supported Stalinist power.

In the Soviet Union it was never that simple. No one was really fooled by the surface. Well, some people were, but not that much, by the surface narrative about monumentalism. We have letters from readers. We have censorship discussions, which we can talk about later. But for the most part, they found the portrait of Ivan to be complex.

Then in cinematic terms, observers are split in other ways. Some people believe that Ivan showed Eisenstein to just have completely buckled under to Stalin, to have made a conventional biopic epic, that he’d abandoned the great filmmaker that he was in the 1920s with his innovations and experimentation and so on. These assumptions can still be found in a lot of textbooks and a lot of surveys.

Then already in the 1960s and 1970s studies began to appear that appreciated the aesthetic experimentation. Then it took another couple of decades, in the 1990s and 2000s, for people began to reevaluate the political position in the films. But still, there are many people who are skeptical that Eisenstein’s Ivan is an anti-Stalinist, even anti-Soviet film. One of my goals in the book is to establish that combining film analysis and documentary evidence shows the ways that politics and artistry are intertwined in the film. But by trying to base all those arguments on a systematic study of Eisenstein’s archive.

The amazing thing about the archive is that it’s huge. There are hundreds of production notebooks. He wrote diaries during this period. He corresponded with people who he was working with. I really try and bring the historian’s appreciation for documentary evidence to the work.

How was he able to make this film?

Well, that’s really two questions, right?

Well, the reason why I ask this because at the beginning of the book Eisenstein is really is at a low period, in terms of his life and creativity. He’s been pitching films and they keep getting rejected. But then Zhdanov comes to him and says, “Hey, we actually have a project that we’d like you to do,” more or less. Then he gets this commission from the highest echelons of Soviet power and he makes a film that is a very complicated psychological aesthetic. A really beautiful film. So how did he go about getting this done in the way he wanted to?

Eisenstein was very much attuned to the nature of power. I think this is one of the things that makes the film great, but it also made it possible for him to make it.

He really understands patronage and the way that the film industry, and actually all of cultural production in the Soviet Union. works. A lot of people have written about patronage in other areas of Soviet life, but it absolutely functioned in the arts, and he really understood that. This was a commission from Stalin. It came from Zhdanov, but it was absolutely coming straight from Stalin. That meant that Stalin was Eisenstein’s patron and the intermediary there is Ivan Bolshakov, who is also Eisenstein’s patron, and Stalin is Ivan’s patron. And patronage works. It’s bilateral. The artist has to do what his patrons want him to do, but the patrons also have to make sure that this product gets made. Eisenstein understood that complex relationship and he called on both Bolshakov and on Stalin himself at a number of times when things were getting tricky for him. That’s part of the answer to that question.

Also, he was in evacuation. He began writing the film right away, in January 1941, right after he gets the commission. Then the Nazis invade in June. Then the Moscow film studios and two million other people were evacuated from Moscow in October 1941. The film studios set up in Almaty, which was then called Alma Ata, in Kazakhstan. Eisenstein understood what it meant to be far away from Moscow, and he also used that to his advantage. There were many, many postponements and he used those to his advantage. He continued to read and to write and to really think about how he could create a film with a surface narrative that Stalin would approve of and then proceed to undermine that narrative in various ways, or complicate that narrative in a lot of ways.

He really took his time and he got in a lot of trouble for that. Even the film studio accountant writes him a letter saying, “You are an arrogant jerk,” basically. “How dare you think that you are so important that you can continue to use our resources to continue to make this film that you should be done by now.” But every time something like that happened, he was able to call on one of his patrons to call the other one’s off his back. And he really, really took his time. So that’s another piece of this story.

Ivan the Terrible is a historical film. It’s a biography. It’s a portrayal of a very important moment of Russian history. How does it function, or what is your opinion of it as a historical film?

That’s a really complicated question because there are many, many parts to it. Let me say in general that in most treatments of historical films, critics usually just like to point out what they got wrong. And readers find that very satisfying. We like to learn our history at the movie theater, but then we all rush home to Wikipedia to find out some other version.

But the thing that historians find interesting about historical films is different. Historians are interested in the choices that directors make to portray a historical figure or a period in a particular way. We know that films aren’t real history, but what we care about is to look at these choices because they tell us something about the period. And then, to look at what they can do with the historical figure that we can’t do as historians. That’s the limitation of depending on documentary evidence. We can’t really get inside characters motivations, or their psychology, or what they were feeling very well. All of these choices tell us a lot about Eisenstein, and a lot about the time the film is made, and a lot about Stalinist Russia.

That’s the way I approached Ivan as history. How does Eisenstein shape Ivan’s story? What does that tell us about what he was trying to say? And what does that tell us about the Stalinist Soviet Union?

Luckily, this is another area where we have an enormous body of documents. Eisenstein read an enormous number of books that we all consider the main books for studying Muscovy in the 16th century. He read all the classic 19th century historians, Karamzin, Solovyov, Klyuchevsky. He read Soviet Historians. He read the 16th century sources, like the letters that Ivan exchanged with Andrey Kurbsky, the aide who betrays him in real life, and in the film. He read Heinrich von Staden, who wrote a memoir, actually a report about serving in the oprichnicki as a mercenary. And he took notes on all of this.

He also read books on the art of the period, and on weapons. He sent people off to museums to get photographs of 16th century objects. He really immersed himself in the story and in the period. He wrote a lot about this, but he also wrote about what he thought his job was as a historian.

You mentioned earlier that Cherkasov’s Ivan is your Ivan, and Eisenstein knew that. At one point he said to someone, “I have to get it right because I’m going make the Ivan who’s going to be everybody’s Ivan after this film comes out.”

But he also had a sense of a responsibility to history. He really wanted to get it right. But he didn’t believe that meant following the documents the way a historian follows documents. He knew that he got to invent things, but he wanted it to be psychologically true, in particular, even if it wasn’t historically accurate.

At the same time, he understood that all history is constructed differently by people living in different era’s, a sort of a cliché for us now, and he wanted to balance those things. He wanted to be able to construct a film that would be meaningful to people in his own time period. But that meant creating a film that was structured in the way that people think in his time period. I don’t know if that makes sense. But those two things had to line up. And that, by the way, he also got from Shakespeare, from studying Shakespeare, who he thought did that perfectly.

What about Ivan himself. Who is Ivan Grozny in the film Ivan the Terrible?

Who is Eisenstein’s Ivan? The main thing is that there’s no easy formula for explaining who Ivan was. Ann Nesbitt once wrote, “Ivan doesn’t equal Stalin,” and that’s really true, except that he does, sometimes.

As I was saying earlier, Eisenstein constructed the film with a very intricate set of interconnected networks of images and ideas, so it’s all very slippery. Sometimes we can see elements of the historical Ivan, of Stalin, of all the other rulers of Ivan’s time, Eisenstein’s father and his other mentors. I said other rulers of the time, he explicitly compares him to Elizabeth I and Sigismundof Poland. But not only that, we also have Ivan’s entourage, who also carry really important historical and political trends and help construct Ivan’s character.

Of course, he was Stalin. Everyone expected Ivan to be Stalin, and there’s just enough little notes in his archive to show that Eisenstein definitely identified Ivan was Stalin, at least part of the time.