This Thing of Darkness: Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia (Preview)
by Joan Neuberger. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019. 404 pp., illus. Hardcover: $48.95.

Reviewed by Stuart Liebman

Readers of Joan Neuberger’s concise monograph about Eisenstein’s never-completed Ivan the Terrible trilogy (I. B. Tauris, 2003) may well wonder how much more her new book has to offer about this extraordinary film project. The short answer is: a great deal. This Thing of Darkness has been gestating for more than two decades, at least since Neuberger presented a paper about the politics behind and embedded within the two completed films at a 1998 conference at Dartmouth honoring the centennial of the great Russian director’s birth. Since then, buttressed by her ongoing immersion in Eisenstein’s immense archive and theoretical writings, she has published nearly a dozen articles about various aspects of his life and thought as they pertain to the making of what remains his most challenging and still too-little-appreciated film project. Her new expanded account synthesizes the findings of all her earlier texts into five closely argued, partially overlapping chapters in addition to a synoptic introduction and conclusion. Throughout, she engages with the latest secondary sources, including an important range of scholarly commentaries about Ivan by prominent Russian scholars such as Yuri Tsivian, Oksana Bulgakowa, Leonid Kozlov, and Naum Kleiman, among others. The result is a superbly informed, comprehensive reading of the films that may fairly be said to be the first fully to unpack and contextualize this still controversial masterpiece.

Potential controversy about the film’s politics and style surrounded what became Eisenstein’s last major project almost from its inception. On January 11, 1941, Eisenstein received a call from Andrei Zhdanov, the USSR’s cultural commissar, who offered him a commission from Stalin himself. Would he make a film about the Soviet leader’s favorite tsar, Ivan Grozny? To Eisenstein, who had last completed a film (Alexander Nevsky) almost three years before, the offer was incredibly tempting. Stalin’s patronage would make vast resources available and also help the stubborn and wily film industry veteran overcome inevitable production obstacles and censorship committees. While the offer would afford him opportunities to achieve an ambitious, large-scale work, Eisenstein also clearly understood the dangers to his reputation as well as his life that addressing such a fraught subject for such an unpredictable patron would entail.

Like most Russians, Eisenstein was well aware of the “terrible” tsar’s historic reign. He could accept Ivan’s early career as a nationalist visionary who dreamed of uniting and expanding the Russian state by defeating the boyar feudal elites who were selling out the country to foreigners. Eisenstein, however, could hardly endorse Ivan’s ruthless mass murders of his opponents, even if that helped to accomplish his rational, indeed admirable, statist goals. There were also more immediate concerns. Eisenstein certainly knew that the secret police had arrested Isaac Babel, his friend and collaborator, and his revered (though also resented) theatrical mentor, Vsevolod Meyerhold. In fact, he may have already learned of their executions in 1940. He therefore knew he might be exposing himself to deadly risks. There were simply too many uncomfortably close, dangerous parallels between Ivan’s reign of terror and the regime led by the man he was being asked to serve.

Eisenstein was in no position, however, to refuse Stalin’s request. Certainly, many of his peers would have recognized his dilemma, but his acceptance of the commission undoubtedly raised eyebrows, both inside and outside the film industry; some unfriendly or envious contemporaries may even have concluded that Eisenstein’s desire to work had made him become a stooge of a murderous regime. Such suspicions increased during the nearly three years of production and intensified when Ivan the Terrible, Part I finally premiered in 1945–46. The ending seemed to celebrate the manipulative tsar’s defeat of his boyar enemies and his cynical duping of the Russian masses. That the film soon thereafter received the Stalin Prize, despite majority opposition in the prize’s advisory committee, seemed to suggest a fix was in.

But as Neuberger remarks, the regime’s banning of Part II just months later by the very dictator who had supported its production, the negative critical reaction to the film in the mainstream communist press, and the cancellation of Part III should have proved that Ivan the Terrible was hardly the Great Totalitarian Epic it was widely believed to be. Nevertheless, even after his death in 1948, the inability to see Part II—a ban that lasted for five years after Stalin’s death in 1953—let alone to explore the full scope of Eisenstein’s project, allowed private grumblings that his work was somehow complicit with the atrocities perpetrated during Stalin’s tyrannical hold on power to persist. As the cultural “Thaw” of the 1950s took hold, some members of the Russian intelligentsia became more vocal in their criticism. These sentiments were perhaps most vividly expressed in a blunt (and here abbreviated) scene in Solzhenitsyn’s famous One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962). Caesar, a recently incarcerated inmate in the gulag who clearly had seen the suppressed second installment of the trilogy, enthusiastically extols the film and Eisenstein’s artistic prowess only to be rebuked by a long-time prisoner, “K-123”:

You’re wrong, pal…One must say in all objectivity that Eisenstein is a genius. Now isn’t Ivan the Terrible a work of genius? The oprichniki dancing in masks! The scene in the cathedral! All show-off!, snapped K-123…Too much art is no art at all. Like candy instead of bread! And the politics of it is utterly vile—a vindication of a one-man tyranny. An insult to the memory of three generations of Russian intellectuals!... But what other treatment of the subject would have been let through?…Ha! Let through, you say? Then don’t call him a genius. Call him a toady, say he carried out orders like a dog. A genius doesn’t adapt his treatment to the taste of tyrants!

Neuberger emphatically rejects such defamatory dismissals of Eisenstein’s motives and achievement. The Ivan films were an ideologically charged project whose politics could be misunderstood, and they were for a long time. At least during the scriptwriting and first censorship phase, Eisenstein blurred the implicit politics as a ploy to lull the censors and enable him to move forward with his work. He also tried to shield himself by rooting the plot outline, his characterizations of the dramatis personae, and his evocation of the period in historical facts confirmed by approved Soviet historiography. These masked his intentions as well as dispelled some of the popular myths surrounding the increasingly mad, bloodthirsty (though, from Stalin’s point of view, too indecisive) tsar. Still, Part I—the only film that a Soviet mass audience was able to see for more than a decade—could be read by Soviet citizens, and certainly by Stalin’s political opponents in the 1940s, as an unsubtle endorsement of their supreme leader…

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