Tag Archives: Ivan the Terrible Part I

A Sound-Era Soviet Cinema Primer

This is meant as a companion piece to my silent Soviet cinema primer from last year. It covers Soviet films from the beginning of the sound era – which, even more so than in most European countries – began much later than in the U.S. – through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As with most of these primers, I am limiting myself here to only one film per director. I will soon have a separate primer for movies made in Eastern Bloc countries outside of the Soviet Union that cover the same time span.

Enthusiasm (Vertov, 1931)

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Dziga Vertov’s follow-up to the revolutionary Man with the Movie Camera was also his first sound film and, while less well-known than its predecessor, is in many ways just as astonishing. It begins with a memorable sequence in which a woman is listening to the radio on headphones; we hear a cacophony of music and sound effects that rhythmically interact with a series of documentary shots of urban Soviet life that feel almost as if they could be outtakes from Man with the Movie Camera (though the aggressively anti-Christian nature of some of the images mark it as a more explicitly propagandistic work). What eventually emerges is a celebratory portrait of Stalin’s first five-year plan, focusing specifically on coal miners and factory workers in the Donbass region (the film’s subtitle is literally translated as Symphony of Donbass). Vertov’s silent movies featured pounding editing rhythms but the addition of literal sound in Enthusiasm arguably leant his art a greater, more symphonic complexity. An essential work by one of cinema’s great avant-gardists.

Deserter (Pudovkin, 1933)

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It seems somewhat curious that Vsevelod Pudovkin, a great director and film theorist, is less famous than Sergei Eisenstein (whose career spanned roughly the same time frame). In both the silent and early sound eras, Pudovkin showed just as much of a flair for associative montage as Eisenstein but, unlike his more theoretically-minded countryman, Pudovkin was more interested in wedding his radical editing techniques with traditional approaches to characterization and story construction. The story of Deserter, Pudovkin’s first sound movie, concerns Karl Renn, a German shipyard worker who “deserts” his striking co-workers and is consequently sent to the Soviet Union so that he can observe the virtues of proletarian solidarity firsthand. The use of sound is primitive (the film is often completely silent until an important sound effect or line of dialogue is required) but its implementation is still more creative than the strictly realistic use of sound being employed concurrently by Hollywood. Also notable for containing scenes that take place in Germany and feature German characters, unusual given the widespread anti-German sentiments in Russia at the time.

Outskirts (Barnet, 1933)

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Although active as a director until his death by suicide in 1965, Boris Barnet is probably best known for his silent film work (e.g., The Girl with the Hatbox and Miss Mend). Outskirts (AKA The Patriots) was Barnet’s first sound movie and remains an unjustly underseen masterpiece of its era. The film is a comedy/drama about the residents of an unnamed town in rural Russia in the days leading up to World War I. It starts off as a comedy that boasts a delightful and innovative use of sound (where animals and even inanimate objects are given voice) but becomes increasingly serious after the war breaks out. Most surprising of all is the tender love subplot that develops between a Russian peasant girl and a German POW. Hopefully, Outskirts will someday receive the loving home video release it deserves and become much better known among cinephiles.

Aerograd (Dovzhenko, 1935)

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The Ukrainian Aleksandr Dovzhenko was arguably the greatest narrative filmmaker working in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s and this early sound-era propaganda piece is one of his finest works. The plot is about the construction of an air field in remote far east Russia and, more specifically, the conflict it engenders between modern-day Bolsheviks and the rural and backwards “old believers” (read Orthodox Christians) who are being spurred on by Japanese saboteurs. But you don’t watch Dovzhenko for the plot, much less the propaganda. You watch him for his famed passages of incredible – and purely cinematic – lyricism: a briskly edited scene of a Russian sharpshooter chasing Japanese spies through a dense forest, beautiful nautical and aerial photography (including a thrilling climax involving paratroopers), and even quiet moments like the radiant smile on the face of a Chinese woman after she’s given birth to the son of her Russian-pilot husband. Operatic and sublime.

Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II (Eisenstein, 1944-1958)

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Sergei Eisenstein’s final movies were the first two parts of an unfinished trilogy about the life of the 17th-century military leader who crowned himself the first tsar of Russia. The films deal with Ivan’s attempts to unify his homeland while fending off both foreign invaders and would-be usurpers within his own inner circle. This has all of the virtues of Alexander Nevsky (spectacle, pageantry, a poetic view of history-as-myth, and a stirring Sergei Prokofiev score), minus the earlier movie’s more dubious pro-militaristic elements. Plus, in the second part (the release of which was delayed by a decade due to Stalin’s personal objections), there is a beautiful color sequence that resembles early two-strip Technicolor, and even a proto-campy musical number. This has my vote for being Eisenstein’s finest achievement.

The Cranes Are Flying (Kalatozov, 1957)

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Veronica and Boris are young lovers in Moscow whose lives are interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. He is drafted and sent to the front while she becomes a nurse and is pressured into an unhappy marriage with his cousin. This film, a kind of bleak Russian cousin to King Vidor’s The Big Parade, was groundbreaking in terms of form and content: the extensive use of handheld camera was revolutionary for a pre-Nouvelle Vague narrative feature, and it is not only remarkably propaganda-free but also taboo-busting as a social document of life during wartime in the Soviet Union. If one wants to understand Andre Bazin’s theory of the relationship between long-take, deep-focus images and “realism,” this masterpiece from the legendary Mikhail Kalatozov (Salt for Svanetia, I am Cuba) could handily serve as “Exhibit A.” The title refers to shots of birds in flight that bookend the film but it might equally refer to the epic crane shots that Kalatozov employs throughout, which give the film an awesome sense of fluidity.

Hamlet (Kozintsev, 1964)

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As much as I admire Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh’s versions (not to mention Michael Almereyda’s underrated postmodern take), Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 adaptation remains far and away my favorite film adaptation of Hamlet. It strikes me as being the most realistic as well as the most cinematic: the action is captured almost entirely in long and medium shots via beautiful black and white ‘Scope cinematography and, combined with the stunning locations (including a real beach and a massive castle set that took six months to construct), they conjure up a gloomy, atmospheric mood perfectly suited to the story. Interestingly, Kozintsev stages Hamlet’s soliloquies as internal monologues; the “To be or not to be” speech is presented as voice-over narration as Hamlet wanders alone along a barren, rocky shoreline. This is also in many ways a uniquely Russian production: the script is base on a lauded 1941 translation by Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago) and the great original score was composed by none other than Dmitri Shostokovich.

Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, 1966)

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Andrei Tarkovsky’s austere, epic biopic of the famed 15th century icon painter is for my money the greatest movie ever made about the life of an artist. Told in vignette fashion, Tarkovsky depicts Rublev’s story against the turbulent backdrop of medieval Russia during the Tatar invasions. The highlight is the climactic sequence where Rublev, who has sworn a vow of silence in protest of the horrors he has seen, witnesses a mere boy overseeing the arduous process of the casting of a giant bell. The boy saves himself from government execution by successfully casting the bell in spite of the fact that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. At the conclusion of this awe-inspiring 30 minute scene, the depiction of a miracle that feels like a miracle of filmmaking, Rublev is inspired not only to speak again but to continue painting and to create his greatest works.

The Color of Pomegranates (Parajanov, 1968)

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Sergei Parajanov’s biopic of the 16th-century Armenian poet Sayat Nova is probably the least conventional take on its subject one could imagine. This might be better referred to as a work of poetry in its own right rather than a film about poetry – a series of fragmented, lyrical, incredibly beautiful scenes from the life of the famed poet (played by actor Sofiko Chiaureli, who also plays four other roles) that employ a purposeful, symbolic use of color, and contain barely any dialogue. This was, unsurprisingly, heavily censored (and even retitled) by Soviet authorities upon its initial release. The homoeroticism, religious imagery and overall abstract nature apparently made them very nervous. But you can’t keep a good film down: the uncut version of The Color of Pomegranates was re-released to wide acclaim in the 1980s and is a frequent staple on the “best of” lists of many critics and cinephiles.

The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath! (Ryazanov, 1975)

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A lot of the films on this list are dark, heavy, serious and slow-paced dramas (especially those immediately preceding and following this entry). This is partly a reflection of my personal taste and partly due to the way Russian and Ukrainian art films have always tended to receive wider distribution internationally than the movies that have been more popular domestically. I am, however, delighted to include at least one crowd-pleasing comedy on this list, Eldar Ryazanov’s legendary The Irony of Fate, or Enjoy Your Bath!. This feel-good, sentimental rom-com is paradoxically both Russian-to-the-bone and universal in its broad appeal: the screwball premise is that Zhenya, a shy doctor, is about to be engaged. After binge-drinking with friends on New Year’s Eve he ends up passing out in an apartment in Leningrad that he mistakenly believes is his own Moscow apartment (it looks the same and even has the same street name and number). Hijinks ensue when the apartment’s true tenant, Nadya, comes home and discovers this strange man in his underwear in her bed. The confusion engendered by this “compromising position” causes problems for not only Zhenya and his fiancee but Nadya and her fiancee as well. What starts off quite farcical (who knew that the uniformity of Brezhnev-era architecture could yield such comic gold?) slowly, almost imperceptibly, turns into a moving romantic drama. I’m told that this still plays on television in Russia every New Year’s Eve, holding the same beloved place in their culture that It’s a Wonderful Life does in America.

The Ascent (Shepitko, 1977)

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Larisa Shepitko was a director of enormous intelligence and integrity who tragically died in a car accident at the young age of 40 (with many more great movies undoubtedly ahead of her). The final film she completed before her death is this harrowing, indelible masterwork about the persecution of partisans in Nazi-occupied Belarus during World War II, which some feel is the finest Soviet film of the 1970s. In adapting a novel by Vasili Bykov – about the two Soviet soldiers and their futile mission to find supplies in a bleak, snowy landscape populated by Nazi collaborators – Shepitko has crafted an experience so austere, and infused it with so much Christian symbolism, that she makes Tarkovsky look both secular and populist. The drastically different way that her two protagonists meet their fates allows for Shepitko to engage the viewer in a dialogue of uncommon moral complexity. For sheer intensity, this wartime drama is topped only by her husband Elem Klimov’s Come and See from eight years later (see below).

Come and See (Klimov, 1985)

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Veteran director Elem Klimov’s final testament, Come and See, is the single most disturbing, and therefore effective, war movie I have ever seen. This tackles somewhat similar terrain as The Ascent, the final film of Larisa Shepitko (Klimov’s late wife) in that it concerns the conflict between Belarussian partisans and their Nazi occupiers during the height of World War II. What makes this film so unsettling and unforgettable is that all of the events are seen through the eyes of a little boy, a Belarussian peasant who joins the partisans and thus witnesses horrors that no one should ever have to face, least of all a child. Before the horrors begin however, there is a mesmerizing, almost unimaginably lovely sequence in which Florya, the protagonist, witnesses a young girl dancing on a tree stump in the rain, as well as a surreal coda in which images of Hitler’s life are shown in reverse order from adulthood all the way back to when he was himself a child. Without these bookending sequences, the film’s depiction of unending suffering might well be unwatchable. Klimov said he lost interest in making films after Come and See, stating, “Everything that was possible I felt I had already done.” He’s not exaggerating.


Top 25 Films of the 1940s

25. The Ornamental Hairpin (Shimizu, Japan, 1941)

Hiroshi Shimizu’s film about a disparate group of vacationers staying at a hot springs resort for the summer starts off as a comedy and then wondrously, imperceptibly morphs into a poignant drama. The great Chishu Ryu (best known for his work with Ozu) plays a soldier who badly injures his foot when he steps on a hairpin in the communal bath. He later discovers that it was left behind by a beautiful young woman played by Kinuya Tanaka (best known for her work with Mizoguchi). When she returns to the resort to apologize, all of the guests speculate that love must be in the cards. But Shimizu, a master of subtlety, decides to steer the material in a more interesting direction. Released less than four months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, The Ornamental Hairpin contains fleeting references to to the war and the fact that Tanaka’s character is a geisha, lending touches of gravitas to another deceptively light Shimizu masterwork.

24. Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, USA, 1944)

23. Going My Way (McCarey, USA, 1944)

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22. Colorado Territory (Walsh, USA, 1949)

21. Laura (Preminger, USA, 1944)

20. Notorious (Hitchcock, USA, 1946)

19. Children of Paradise (Carne, France, 1945)

The best collaboration of director Marcel Carne and writer Jacques Prevert is this epic tale of doomed love set in the world of 19th century theater. Baptiste is a mime who falls in love with aspiring actress Garance. His shyness prevents their affair from being consummated and they go their separate ways until, years later, fate brings them back together for one last shot at romance. Both the behind the scenes look at theater and the depiction of 19th century France are lovingly detailed and passionately executed. This is sometimes referred to as a French Gone with the Wind but it’s actually much better than even that would suggest. One of the all-time great French movies.

18. Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947)

The ultimate film noir – a cynical, fatalistic crime movie with a gorgeous, shadowy visual style in which writer Daniel Mainwaring and director Jacques Tourneur create a dichotomy between: cool detective (Robert Mitchum) and hotheaded gangster (Kirk Douglas), good girl (Virginia Huston) and femme fatale (Jane Greer), idyllic small town and corrupt big city, day and night. Remade officially as Against All Odds and unofficially as A History of Violence.

17. Brief Encounter (Lean, UK, 1945)

David Lean will probably always be best remembered for lavish, 70mm-photographed Oscar-friendly pictures like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, but I think his relatively early Brief Encounter remains the high point of his career. It’s a minimalist story of adulterous love as “brief” and compressed as the later films are expansive and epic, and arguably all the more effective for it. The performances of Trevor Howard and doe-eyed Celia Johnson as the star-crossed lovers and the script by Noel Coward are all world class. In a memorable line of dialogue Celia’s Laura says “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” If “violence” can be considered purely emotional then this is one of the most violent movies ever made.

16. Heaven Can Wait (Lubitsch, USA, 1943)

15. The Third Man (Reed, UK, 1949)

In Carol Reed’s classic British noir Joseph Cotton stars Holly Martins, a dime store novelist who travels to Vienna to visit childhood pal Harry Lime only to find that his friend has died in a mysterious accident. Martins’ belief that Lime was murdered inspires a personal investigation that leads him deep into the morally dubious heart of the postwar European black market as well as into a love affair with Lime’s beautiful girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli). Among the film’s unforgettable ingredients are the catchy zither score by Anton Karas, the legendary extended cameo by Orson Welles and the cinematography of Robert Krasker, whose use of dutch angles and chiaroscuro lighting make the rubble-strewn Viennese streets look positively lunar.

14. Germany Year Zero (Rossellini, Italy/Germany, 1948)

13. Late Spring (Ozu, Japan, 1949)

Yasujiro Ozu kickstarted his great late period with this terrific drama about a young woman named Noriko (Setsuko Hara, playing the first of three Norikos for Ozu) who lives with her widower father (Chishu Ryu) and is reluctant to get married for fear of leaving him alone. Not only is this the first of the loose “Noriko trilogy” (even though Hara’s characters are different in each film), it also laid down the template that all of Ozu’s subsequent films would follow until his death in 1963: the themes of intergenerational conflict, familial love, loss and regret, wedded to a precise visual style favoring static, low angle compositions and long takes. The depth of feeling that arises from this marriage of form and content is simply unparalleled in cinema.

12. Ivan the Terrible Parts I and II (Eisenstein, Russian, 1944-1958)

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11. Detour (Ulmer, USA, 1945)

10. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, USA, 1944)

Writer/director Preston Sturges was to the American cinema what Mark Twain was to American literature: the greatest satirist of our mores and all that we hold sacred. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is his most subversive work, a cinematic powder-keg that does impressive narrative somersaults in order to illustrate the predicament of Trudy Kockenlocker (a name that makes me laugh just to type it). Trudy (Betty Hutton) is a small town girl who, in one long drunken night, meets, marries and gets knocked up by a soldier before he heads off to war – but wakes up the next morning unable to remember anything about him. Hilarity ensues when she turns to 4F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), her longtime admirer-from-afar, to help prevent the inevitable local scandal.

9. Day of Wrath (Dreyer, Denmark, 1943)

The first sound film that Carl Dreyer made in his native Denmark is this great work of art about religious intolerance, hypocrisy and persecution in the 17th century. While “witches” are being burned at the stake, a beautiful young woman marries an elderly pastor and then embarks on an affair with his son, leading to tragedy for everyone. This is no stolid “period drama” but rather a vital piece of filmmaking with incredibly atmospheric cinematography, restrained but razor sharp performances and a story that brims with obvious parallels to the question-and-torture methods of the Nazis. One of the essential films of its era.

8. Spring in a Small Town (Fei, China, 1948)

7. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, USA, 1946)

William Wyler’s hard-hitting film about returning war veterans readjusting to civilian life holds up extremely well today as an absorbing drama as well as a fascinating window into the myriad social issues facing ordinary, small town Americans in the mid-1940s. Gregg Toland’s deep focus photography and the large ensemble cast, including Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright and non-actor Harold Russell, are world-class.

6. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, UK, 1948)

As “The Archers,” Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger collectively wrote and directed the most extraordinary movies of the golden age of British cinema and The Red Shoes is their masterpiece. Taking its inspiration from a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, this beautiful, visually baroque Technicolor extravaganza tells the story of a ballerina (Moira Shearer) who is torn between the desires of her heart and the quest for perfection in her craft. The highlight is the title ballet sequence, a fifteen minute scene employing dozens of dancers and over a hundred painted backdrops, shot and cut together as a thrilling spectacle of pure cinema. One of the great films about obsession. One of the great films about the artistic process. One of the great films period.

5. Casablanca (Curtiz, USA, 1942)

A strong candidate for the most entertaining movie ever made, Casablanca irresistibly weds the theme of self-sacrifice for a greater good to a love story set against a backdrop of wartime intrigue. Mix in Bogie and Bergman at their most iconic, deliciously witty dialogue, a cast of colorful supporting characters played by unforgettable character actors and the able craftsmanship of director Michael Curtiz and you have Exhibit A for anyone looking to understand the genius of Hollywood’s old studio system.

4. Citizen Kane (Welles, USA, 1941)

Orson Welles’ legendary film about the life of a newspaper tycoon loosely based on William Randolph Hearst was completed when its writer/director/star was just 26 years old. Revolutionary for both its deep focus cinematography and its intricate flashback structure, Citizen Kane also astonishes by capturing wide swaths of human experience in its two hour running time. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this is the film most often cited by critics and historians as the greatest of all time.

3. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, Italy, 1948)

The definitive Italian Neorealist film remains a deceptively simple, emotionally overwhelming experience that must be seen by anyone who loves movies. Writer Cesare Zavattini and director Vittorio de Sica crafted the ultimately politically engaged drama with this tale of Antonio Ricci, an unemployed factory worker (non-actor Lamberto Maggiorani) who finds a job putting up posters around Rome that requires the use of a bicycle. After selling his bedsheets to get his bike out of hock, Antonio finds that his bicycle is tragically stolen, a turn of events that causes him to spend the day looking for the thief with the aid of his young son Bruno (Enzo Staioloa). A humanistic portrait of despair that has never been bettered.

2. How Green Was My Valley (Ford, USA, 1941)

The failure of the Academy to award Best Picture of 1941 to Citizen Kane is often cited as definitive “proof” that the Oscars have always been out of touch – the cinematic equivalent of the Grammys not honoring Elvis, The Beatles or Bob Dylan for their best recorded work. However, as innovative and influential and great as Kane is, John Ford’s deeply moving portrait of life in a 19th century Welsh mining community is nearly as cinematically expressive and, for my money, the more emotionally affecting work. Ironically, How Green Was My Valley is very similar to Kane in its treatment of the theme of subjectivity; what we see is not after all objective reality but the romanticized memories of Irving Pichel’s offscreen narrator.

1. Letter From an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, USA, 1948)

Set in Vienna in the early twentieth century, Max Ophuls’ masterpiece tells the incredible story of the title letter-writer (Joan Fontaine) and her three brief but fateful encounters with a ne’er-do-well pianist (Louis Jourdan) over the course of several decades. His inability to recognize her on the latter two occasions elevates the simple plot, which is recounted via flashback, to the level of high tragedy. Fontaine is heart-breaking in the lead role but the real star is German-born, French-bred director Max Ophuls, whose relentless use of tracking shots has made him virtually synonymous with that type of camera movement and has been a major influence on subsequent directors from Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese to Paul Thomas Anderson.


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