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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

Ivan the Terrible, Part II

Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Country: Soviet Union
Year: 1958


After 1938’s Alexander Nevsky, Eisenstein turned his attention to another mythic figure from Russian history: the Muscovite warrior-king Ivan IV, aka “Ivan the Terrible.” Fun fact from the Criterion website: Ivan was a contemporary of Henry VIII. Yes, that puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

As with Nevsky, the idea was to draw favorable parallels between a Russian leader from the past and the current leader, Stalin. Ivan ruled with an iron fist, crushed his enemies (and traitorous friends) without mercy, but, on the credit side of the balance sheet, was also the architect of a unified Russian state. Ivan’s use of violent means to a glorious end could therefore be used as an implicit justification for Stalin’s own tendency toward brutality and repression.

As Eisenstein began work on his projected three-part epic, Germany invaded Russia. The Mosfilm studios were temporarily relocated to the capital of Kazakhstan, where filming began in 1943. Part 1 premiered in 1944, several months before the fall of Berlin. Eisenstein was awarded the Stalin Prize for his culturally appropriate and state-approved film.

Eisenstein began filming Part 2 soon after, but the project came under increasing scrutiny as Stalin realized that this episode would depict him as a neurotic, paranoid murderer. Actually, he wasn’t all that upset about the murder part, but, as he told Eisenstein: “… you have to show why he had to be cruel.”

Sergei, ever the loyal boot-licker, agreed to Stalin’s request for extensive reshoots, but fell ill and died before they could be completed. Part 2, in its existing “Culturally Unacceptable Director’s Cut” version, was shelved.

Representatives from Janus repeatedly approached Soviet film reps at Cannes and begged for the opportunity to distribute Part 2. “Nyet! Nyet! No exist!” was the insistent reply until 1958, when Soviet authorities, in an early spasm of Glasnost, acknowledged the existence of a print and allowed it to be screened.


This is Part Two: The Boyar’s Plot, the titles tell us, and we can expect this episode to cover Ivan’s “struggle against the foes of Russian unity.”

Over a dizzying montage of scenes from the film (and some that do not appear in the film, or perhaps they were from Part One: A New Hope), the cast is introduced: “In the role of Ivan the Terrible, Nikolai Cherkasov…” and so on. (If you’ve been following along, you will recognize Cherkasov as the same actor who played Alexander Nevsky.)

“It is the year Fifteen Hundred and Sixty-Four: The year in which the Tsar formed his special bodyguard, the Oprichniks; the year in which Tsar Ivan withdrew to Alexandrov; the year in which the people organized a procession to beg the Tsar to return…”

“…the year in which Prince Kurbsky committed the base treachery of surrendering the Russian armies to the Poles and transferred his allegiance to King Sigismund.”

We don’t spend much time with King Sigismund, but he seems like a pompous ass, and he wears a gigantic frilled collar like one of those poison-spitting lizards.

Dastardly Prince Kurbsky is in the process of transferring his allegiance when the news arrives: “Tsar Ivan is on his way back to Moscow!”

Meanwhile, Ivan is pulling the rug out from under his sworn enemies, the Boyars, by unilaterally re-negotiating some real estate deals. Confused? Me too, but I don’t think it matters.

“You’ve shown yourselves for what you are: Traitors!” proclaims Ivan. In fact, there’s a lot of proclaiming throughout this week’s film, so get used to that.

The Boyars are wearing the traditional Boyar page-boy haircuts and full beards. Ivan, approximately ten feet tall, has them beat in the facial hair department, with a beard as pointy as a traffic cone.

“These (unilaterally re-negotiated real estate) plans come not from God but from the devil!” Proclaims Philip the Monk (who, in Part 1, was a friend of Ivan’s and went by the name of Kolychev).

Ivan’s Flashback: “Ever since I was a child, the Boyars showed their hatred for the Grand Duke of Moscow… also, my Mother was killed.”

Ivan’s Mother: “They’ve killed me! Watch out for poison! Those damnable Boyars!”

Back in the present day, Ivan is standing in front of a mural showing a guy standing on the face of the Man in the Moon, which I think is significant.

Flashback Continues: Ivan rules as a boy, feet not touching the ground when he sits on the throne. Later, feeling his oats, he tells off his counselors. “You have wasted Russia’s strength! It has been frittered away by the Boyars!”

Back in the present day, Ivan has an argument with another former friend, Alexei Basmanov.

Things get heated, and Ivan says some things he later regrets, like calling his friend a dog. “I am a dog, am I?” demands Alexei. “Well, your mother was a bitch!”


Ivan imprisons the Boyars and mopes around the castle by himself: “Now I hold great power, the people support me, my personal guard form an iron ring around me, my enemies are kept at bay… but I have no close friends.”

By his twitchy eyes, greasy hair, and constant state of beleaguered paranoia, we come to understand that our hero Ivan is cracking up. “I fear not for myself… but I tremble for our great cause.”

Ivan offers Philip the Monk a job: Metropolitan Bishop of Moscow, which was apparently a big deal back in olden times. Alexei doesn’t like that, so he schemes to destroy Philip. The Tsarina (we never see her, but apparently she figured in Part 1) is poisoned. “Who gave the fatal goblet to the Tsarina?” is the question on everyone’s lips. The answer: Euphrosyne (or Efrosinia; spellings vary), Ivan’s aunt, who wears a gigantic quilted golden shawl/dress and a bejeweled scarf/hat and looks like a man.

Relatives of Philip the Monk are beheaded. “Too few!” proclaims Ivan. At a crazy underground Boyar funeral, with thousands of candles, Philip the Monk vows vengeance on the deranged Tsar. “Beneath my priestly robes beats the heart of a Kolychev… I shall crush him! Come to the cathedral tomorrow. I shall humble the Tsar. I will crush him with the weight of the church!” Good luck with that, Philip the Monk.

At church the next day, actors put on a sort of “dumb show” to tell the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, which I think is supposed to be metaphorically related to the events of the film (wicked King/Tsar oppressing the Jews/Boyars). The actors are caked with stage makeup, lit from below, and mugging and grimacing their way through the “fiery furnace” scene, as Ivan looks on, glowering like Ming the Merciless.

“Why, shameless Chaldeans, do you serve a lawless Tsar?” demand the members of the chorus. “Why, bewitched Chaldeans, do you serve a devilish, blaspheming, and despotic Tsar?”

Philip, true to his word, denounces Ivan: “Your actions are those of a bloodthirsty beast! Like Nebuchadnezzar, you cast those who are close to you into the fire! Submit to the authority of the church!”

Ivan, predictably, is having none of it: “From now on, I will be just what you say I am! I will be TERRIBLE!”

Philip is quickly imprisoned, and the Boyars begin plotting their revenge; Peter (or Pyotr, for you purists) Volynets is given the sacred mission of assassinating Tsar Ivan. “We will exterminate the beast!” proclaims the priest from beneath his crucifix-bedecked cowl.

Efrosinia comforts her simple-minded and effeminate son Vladimir by singing a sweet lullaby:

“A black beaver was bathing in the water
In the frozen Moskova River
He didn’t wash himself cleaner
He only got blacker
Having taken his bath, the beaver
Went off to the capital’s High hill
To dry himself, shake himself and look around
To see if anyone was coming to look for him…”

…and then it gets weird:

“The hunters whistle, searching out the black beaver
The hunters follow the scent
They will find the black beaver
They want to catch and skin the beaver
And with its fur then to adorn a kingly mantle
In order to array Tsar Vladimir!”

Poor, stupid Vladimir realizes he is being groomed for the throne, and freaks out: “I’ve always been frightened of blood!”


Without warning, the film switches from somber chiaroscuro black-and-white to delirious, nightmarish, red-and-gold hued color (Agfa stock captured from the Germans, according to the Criterion essay) for a drunken Keystone Kops dance sequence. No, I am not kidding. Ivan has invited cousin Vladimir to a banquet, but his motives are unclear.

“It’s not right for the Tsar to fraternize with the landowners!” shouts Alexei, reprimanding Ivan.

“The Tsar’s family outshines all other connections, as the celestial tamarind outshines homely oak!” retorts the Tsar – fairly, I think. But then he goes too far: “You are no relation of mine! You are my slaves! I raised you from the dust to defeat the Boyar traitors!”

This righteous smackdown is followed by a full-on musical number (still in color) about the axes skimming the necks of the Boyars (“Axes! Axes! Tell me More!”), and so on. The designated assassin, Peter, skulks in the background, a carving knife concealed within his voluminous cloak. A dozen black swans wearing tiny golden crowns are served as the main course. This is to contrast with a similar scene in Part 1, in which white swans were served. But now they’re black. Get it? Because, when things were good, the swans were white, but now… oh, forget it.

Ivan continues his irritating drunk guy “nobody loves me” routine for a while, and then lets Vladimir play dress-up, placing the crown on his head and the scepter in his hand. “He likes it!” Ivan proclaims, eyes widening grotesquely as he realizes that a plot is afoot. The masks and costumes of the revelers now lay in disarray on the floor. Symbolism? You bet.

…and the color section comes to an abrupt end.

Vlad, decked out in kingly raiment, stumbles dazedly through the castle, followed by the entire cast of The Name of the Rose, shuffling along silently, faces obscured by their monk hoodies. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what’s happening in this scene, but I can tell you one thing: It is fucking ominous!

Eager assassin-in-training Peter dashes out of the darkness and stabs Ivan… whoops, I mean Vladimir! And the Boyars are like, Curses, Foiled Again!

Cradling the head of her dead son, Efrosinia reprises the Beaver Song.

“They will find the black beaver
They want to catch and skin the beaver
And with its fur then to adorn a kingly mantle
In order to array Tsar Vladimir…”

What I Liked

When I saw another Eisenstein film coming up on the schedule, I heard myself groan. While I appreciated Alexander Nevsky on its artistic and technical merits, I can’t say that I enjoyed it a whole lot, or that I was looking forward to another lengthy Russian historical propaganda film. Much to my surprise, I loved Ivan the Terrible, Part 2: The Boyar’s Plot, which I shall refer to hereafter as ITTP2TBP. Or maybe just I2.

First of all, I2 is only 85 minutes long, and it whizzes through so much plot that I could barely keep up. During the dizzying and disorienting opening montage and introduction of the cast, the highlights of Part 1 are recapped in approximately two minutes, with comically decontextualized clips from a seemingly endless array of fantastically-staged scenes on mind-boggling sets, with a thousand characters wearing fabulously outré costumes all posing mid-proclamation, glowering menacingly or laughing like madmen… It was such an overwhelming cascade of information and over-the-top filmic bravado that I found myself laughing aloud, and that pace rarely let up until the final reprise of the wistful Beaver Song.

Apparently, Eisenstein had denounced The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for its decadent theatricality, but in I2, he took many of the tropes of German Expressionism – noir-ish chiaroscuro black-and-white, crazy camera angles, a highly exaggerated acting style, uncomfortable close-ups – added his own baroque sensibilities, and cranked the volume up to 11. Not a scene passed without me saying “oh my GOD look at the foot-high quilted shoulder pads on that guy’s outfit!” or “those sets must have cost a fortune!” or “honey, you have to come in and listen to the Beaver Song!” Every line is delivered as a proclamation. Every face is lit dramatically from below. No opportunity for grotesque grimacing and scenery-chewing is left unexploited.

Above all, watching I2 was one of those rare occasions (like the first time I watched a film by Miike or Jodorowsky, or during the entirety of Naked Killer) when I began to genuinely suspect that the filmmaker was, well… unhinged. When the film switched to hellish color, and previously dour members of Ivan’s court busted out with a joyous Monty Python-esque song-and-dance number about beheading their enemies, I was both convinced and delighted.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

I probably couldn’t watch another Eisenstein film any time soon; his style is so aggressively theatrical and stylized and loud that 90 minutes left me a bit audio-visually oversaturated.

Do I even need to mention the fact that I2 is basically an apologia for the actions of a ruthless despot? That’s a little problematic.

Should You See It?


As with Alexander Nevsky, if you’re interested in the history of Russian film, or in the history of Russia itself, you should absolutely see I2. For the rest of you, your enjoyment will depend upon your willingness to set aside your Western film expectations and simply absorb the cultural weirdness, the pageantry and the spectacle. I enjoyed this film quite a lot, but I would only recommend it to a small subset of people I know… people who have the patience for a foreign film that definitely feels foreign, and people who have an appreciation for aggressive, unapologetically over-the-top art.

Next: Le jour se lève


  1. Sigh.
    I ordered both parts 1 and 2 from Netflix. My partners-in-film and I started disk 1, and we made it about 20 minutes before we couldn’t take it anymore. Then we popped in disk 2, thinking/hoping it would be better, and maybe that’s why the Janus Challenge only lists part 2. We made it ten minutes. I just couldn’t handle all the creepy guys, outrageous costumes, and bad captioning. I mean, come on, men wearing false eyelashes? Right at the end of WWII? Were they on LSD in Russia back then? Instead of being sparsely elegant, like Alexander Nevsky, I found the few minutes of Ivan that we could manage to watch to be tediously torturous. A reviewer on IMDb commented about the
    acting. No one could have said it better. Rick’s son Phillip said, “This looks like it was filmed in the ’30s, not the ’40s!” Rick said, “There’s a reason the word ‘terrible’ is in the title.” I couldn’t agree with him more.

  2. Your highly detailed mentioning of “The Beaver Song” curtailed my mentioning of it. Of course I SHOULD have mentioned it but the impact was a bit lost when the subtitles were like:

    “They w find the bla beaver…
    They wa to catch scent…”

    Stupid bad pressings – not even a real menu! Bah!

  3. …but what about that Beaver Song?

  4. Here’s what I know about Sergei Eisenstein: He made a classic silent film entitled “The Battleship Potempkin.” This film was highly influential on many MANY film-makers. What Eisenstein did with the camera, his use of angles, edits, etc. were stunning at the time and are still powerful today. He is/was truly a genius.

    Now, for “Ivan the Terrible Parts 1 and 2” (wait? Did Matt say parts 1 AND 2?). Yes, I did. For fear that “Netflix” wouldn’t have them, or that I read Jason’s list of the films wrong, I went ahead and ordered BOTH films (even though Jason just watched Part 2 – I assume, since I haven’t read his review). So, you lucky reader, you get to read reviews of BOTH films. Don’t worry this won’t take long.

    First, Part 1:

    The film opens with Ivan being crowned Tsar of Russia. It’s all done in a cathedral (which would come later) and there’s lots of “God Mumbo Jumbo” and blessing this and blessing that. But before the fingerprints have faded off the crown you’ve got warring factions already pissed and ready for bear.

    Now I talk a lot in my screenwriting class about NOT using expository dialogue…in this film they really had no choice. So the moment that Ivan is Tsar of Russia you’ve got these groups saying, basically: “We, the boyars, are PISSED. He’s not OUR Tsar.” “We the ______ (insert name here) are PISSED. He’s not OUR Tsar.” “We the __________ (insert long name here) are PISSED. He’s not OUR Tsar.” And this goes on for about 15 minutes. In fact the whole ceremony in the cathedral lasts about 30 minutes of the films 90 minute running time.

    And before you can say “George W. Bush” – Ivan declares that they’re going to go to war with EVERYONE. And everyone’s got to pony up their share of the loot to fight these wars – even the Church (which, of course, pisses the church off).

    Now, as much as I wanted to get to the “The Terrible” part – there really wasn’t much power wielding. Still, you have the factions above who are, still, PISSED and they choose to exact revenge by poisoning Ivan’s wife. But, before this (I think…I nodded off a couple times) Ivan is stricken ill and given last rites and everyone thinks he’s dead but he COMES BACK TO LIFE (this would be the first Christ allegory – it wouldn’t be the last). Distraught over his wife’s death (he doesn’t figure out she’s been poisoned by the bastard boyars until the 2nd film) he goes into exile leaving the country to, I guess, run itself or something. Oh, if only GWB had gone into self exile…

    While in exile the country falls into ruin?? (I don’t really know as I, uh, nodded off a few times.) And a group of people (from the church?) goes in search of Ivan. This proved to be the most spectacular shot as Ivan sits high above his summer home (?) and there is a line of 1,000 extras stretching serpentine throughout the vast wasteland. I’m thinking to myself: “This film was made in 1944 – wasn’t Russia at WAR at this time? Were they really wasting funds hiring extras and making this film?”

    At the end of Part 1 Ivan has decided to come back from his stay at the spa and regroup and kick some ass.

    Thus Part 2 starts. Ivan is back in control and, GUESS WHAT??, people are STILL pissed at him (power, why do people want SO MUCH POWER?). In fact, it’s those wacky boyars again and in a flashback we learn, I think, that Ivan’s mother was killed by the boyars. Well, he still figures out that they killed his lovely wife Anastasia and he’s pissed now. Golly gee, there’s going to be some blood-shedding TONIGHT!

    Then you know what happens? The film turns into: “Ivan The Terrible – THE MUSICAL!” Seems this elder chick from the boyars has a great voice and she sings these songs about angels, and history and Christ, etc. And the decision is made that Ivan’s flitty stupid Nephew should take over the throne after they kill the Tsar. Another guy is hired to kill Ivan and the film SUDDENLY GOES ALL TECHNICOLOR with some great Russian dancing and MORE SINGING! It’s a FRIGGIN PARTY!

    Still, heavy is the head who wears the crown, and Ivan spends another good portion of the film quoting Christ and lamenting his soul and getting his stupid Nephew drunk. The Nephew comes clean that an assassination plot is under way and that he’ll be the new Tsar once Ivan is dead. In a brilliant stroke, Ivan says: “Hey, yeah, let’s check you out in some of the robes, dog, see how stylin’ you be, flash.” So that’s what they do.

    Now, I don’t know how you confuse an old guy with shallow eyes, a scraggly beard and over all cranky demeanor with some young guy with blond hair and short beard and over all drunken demeanor…but that’s what the assassin does and kills the Nephew.

    Note, at this point in the film, the musical numbers are over (for now) and the film has gone into a sepia tone much like a silent film. No more Technicolor fun for you! Oh, and we’re back in the Cathedral.

    Once the Nephew is killed, the old boyar lady announces that the Tsar is dead and the Nephew is now Tsar (through some Florida re-count). But the Tsar shows up AGAIN (will this guy EVER die?) and shows the truth to this plot and the lady is caught and the assassin is let go (see, he’s not THAT terrible).

    I think it’s at THIS point that the Tsar says: “I’m now terrible!” Or that might have been in the first film. Still…you get the feeling as the film ends that there’s going to be a lot of beheading going on soon enough. We just don’t get to see it.

    What I liked:

    Golly, this is a hard one. I found both films INTERESTING, jut not very good. But, what did I like? Well, Eisenstein’s camera angles and some of the things he did visually were fantastic. The guy really knows how to set up the camera. Some of the artwork in the background was kick-ass. And the scene with a thousand extras was stunning.

    It was always watchable (except when I fell asleep).

    What I didn’t like:

    There was, basically, no story in Part I. Part II the story was stronger but I really didn’t care.

    The acting was all WAY OVER THE TOP to almost comical effect. The switch to color and musical numbers seemed over-dramatic and over-padded but, hey, it’s a Russian film, what was I expecting?

    Also…the versions of both films were NOT part of the Criterion/Janus collection but, instead, a more “public domain” pressing of the films. In other words, the film quality was not that good. The subtitles were in white so often times I would see:

    “We the bo ar wa t him de !”

    I’d have to move my head back and forth to try and read what it said completely often time losing that subtitle to the next one I could barely read. And there was also that annoying: “Let’s speak in Russian for two minutes and have it translate to: “That Ivan, he’s a terrible guy.”

    Bottom line:

    The films were vastly and completely flawed in many ways. No story in Part I, little more story in Part II. Not enough “terribleness” for my liking. Still…the films were watchable if only for the simple fact that Eisenstein knows how to set up the camera and compose shots in a way that both convey the story and are artistic. But to what end if you have no real story to tell?

    They were “okay.” Still I would say that Part II is much better than Part I (maybe why Janus links to that one) but, honestly, I wouldn’t waste my time with either of them….unless you are REALLY bored and have a hankerin’ for some good ol’ fashioned Russian cinematography.

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