Before Kill Bill... Before Che... Before The Godfather... there was little ol' Ivan:
It's from this that Eisenstein builds his story of Ivan's rise to power, and those loyal to him are quite loyal. Until, say, one of them betrays him and goes off, or another packs off to a monastery. His closest ally really is his wife, and ultimately she becomes poisoned (spoiler - sorry, no way to write about this and part two without it). Throughout the story Eisenstein is moreso interested in what these faces represent, and in just getting faces and costumes and settings together it is a masterful work of art. He often shoots these people, particularly the Boyers but sometimes Ivan too, in close-ups and angles that have them in the corner of a screen or the lower half of the frame. They're a little distorted in their own way, though he doesn't use any crazy lenses for it (didn't exist at the period).
His mood is what I would think is pure-Baroque-quality, and with an emphasis on the image. What I mean to say is that he is less interested in the nuances of the acting. Eisenstein comes out of the silent-era and as with Alexander Nevsky did not adjust to sound-film the way his contemporaries did. This isn't to say he doesn't misuse it either; the music composed for the film gives the Baroque-feeling ultimately, from Sergei Prokofiev (if not as epic as 'Nevsky' still with its wonder and moments of charm and dread, the themes resonating in the themes of the film). But I was, and I'm sure others will be too, caught off guard by the acting, where the players often have faces that are beaming with emotion but not naturalistically. It's like they're caught in a bubble of history where people acted BIG, like paintings that have come to life.
It's acceptable though since the acting is never exactly 'bad', just over the top in certain respects, like how they play to an audience that is far-reaching outside the camera (if it was theater it would be just about right). Not to mention it is set in the regal setting of a Russian palace in Moscow, and when characters declare something, usually against someone else and even in hushed tones, it's meant to be noticed if only in the eye movements and how they jut-out. Especially note(and praise) worthy is Cherkasov as Ivan, who goes from a fresh-faced Czar to one with a big beard and with a mind that has to stay sharp to keep ahead of those conniving against him. He especially goes to town (and, frankly, does come close to being mock-worthy with how BIG he gets) when he becomes sick, somewhat suddenly after such a successful military campaign against the Kazans, and everyone is plotting around him. As he goes all about his bed-chamber declaring how he'll die and what will happen and so on it's the work worthy of an Oscar AND a Razzie at the same time.
But hey, Eisenstein wasn't known for directing his actors with the best aplomb anyway. What Ivan the Terribe part one succeeds most at is creating a sense of dread in the atmosphere, how a character's face or body language says as much if not more than what they intend to do. And the direction with the camera is gripping in certain instances, such as the battle scene against the Kazans (a little too brief but still captivating), and how he handles crowds is always amazing (director of the Odessa Steps, come-on). As for it being propaganda like his past films in the silent era, there could be something to it but it mostly was lost on me; I more-so got the impression of it near the end of the film, when he tries to appeal to the people in a kind of grandstanding manner that, I suppose, would have been to Stalin's fancy as propaganda for the people (a 'mad' ruler uniting the people due to how gullible they can be maybe?) Or maybe it's just in how the Tsar's Aunt (a great villainess, by the way, in Serafima Berman) wants to make her idiot son into the new Tsar as a 'pure' boyar, and that for Stalin was like 'ahh, I know what that's like, people always trying to usurp me and shit.'
To me the propaganda wasn't as obvious as the silent era films, which I appreciated, however it isn't until part two it becomes more prevalent - for the better, mayhap - while here it is more of a character study, of what Ivan was like in his early years and how the boyers always disdained him, if nothing else because he wasn't a 'real' boyer or whatever. Ivan the Terrible part one can be dated in its acting and in some of its dialog (lots of declarations more than actual conversations, people staring in awe-eyed wonder at whatever's being said), but the filmmaking is top-notch and inventive, and the director continues to push forward with an exciting style that is less based on montage (though there is some of that) than more based around all of these faces in their big beards and big robes and their big grabs for power.
Which brings me to part two:
While Ivan is never shown exactly as 'wrong' there was a reason that is not hard to miss why Stalin, after so becoming a mushy-rabbit to the first Ivan movie, was so against this one. It shows a Czar in charge who rules without feeling, and if he must he'll kill whoever he will including those closest to him to hold on to power. He finally, indeed, takes hold of the mantle others have laid upon him with the "Terrible" title, and runs with it. In the big set-piece of the film, about an hour or so in for those who want to find the clip on Youtube, Ivan has a big party in his royal quarters with a big group of singers and dancers who chant about the boyers and it's a dance scene (in COLOR no less!) that displays a kind of deliberately twisted view of the "joy" in fascism. If I were an evil tyrant killing millions of my own people, I'd imagine I'd be unnerved by the this bizarre pageant of absurd rule and how Ivan ultimately without emotion wipes out his one big villain to rule with an iron fist. That it's all mostly in red-tint and lighting makes it a true "hell" up high.
Ivan the Terrible part two takes everything that was exemplary in part one and, I think, improves upon it. The performances are still in a manner that is playing to the BIG-ness of a person, but it seems to work better this time: there's more at stake, even more than in part one, as Ivan is surrounded in dread and paranoia, and his Aunt becomes a twisted kind of demon feeding her idiot son the ideals of becoming King of All. Maybe it's also a matter of pacing; Eisenstein is able to work the flashback just right early on in the film and it gives just the right amount of context. Then once it sticks to the story of Ivan vs. Traitors it gains steam leading up to the big party scene and Vladimir's "Coronation" as the new Czar. On top of this he goes further with moving the camera, tracking around in scenes when in part one he would stay put. There's drama, tension, and everything else in political intrigue with just how the camera's paced and cuts from shot to shot.
And no wonder that Eisenstein saw this as the Big EPIC of his life (a third part was planned but never shot as he died before it was to be, though not before Stalin banned this film), and in this second part ups the ante on being subversive. By this I mean there's something to commenting on not just Stalinism but the fall of the Bolshekik revolution. How much can change actually occur when so much, even our "hero", is poisoned through his place of power? He's meant to be a hero by the end of the film by overcoming those around him, including his pathetic excuse for an Aunt (Berman, I must reiterate, really gives the best performance here, especially in one scene where she serenades her son Vladimir with a tune about a Beaver and how it should lead to him being Tzar somehow). But whether it's from Ivan's body language or through just how he talks to the camera (his "audience") he seems corrupted now; despite wiping out his opposition and uniting Russia, it's like 'what else is there now, punk!'
It's a powerful treatise on Power in general in hierarchical rule, and the tragedy of it all. Going from the fresh-faced ruler to a guy who looks like a freaky-bearded fuck, Ivan is caught in Eisenstein's lens as having little choice left to rule the way he does, and neither for the boyers who want to crush him especially after he orders some executions of dissidents. And all the while Eisenstein keeps up the precisely constructed shot compositions that make faces and rooms seem a little more than usually distorted: expressionistic in lighting and how a person will be in a frame and another will come in to the same shot, eyes often wide and pondering, planning, scheming.
And I mentioned the color, but I should mention it again, as coming off of a film that is already very good the choice to suddenly jump to this Bi-Color format (rather it's not three-strip technicolor of the period, rather it brings out the blues and reds, especially the reds) takes it up another notch: we're suddenly dropped into a living-nightmare of Ivan's choosing, and quietly whines that he's all alone "without pity" as his minions sing like evil court jesters. The dancing especially is bewildering, like a frenzy of fascism in one room. I first saw the scene as part of Slavoj Zizek's Pervert's Guide to Cinema and was transfixed by the fast vibrancy and movement, like a sick parody (and rightfully so) of the excess of rule, especially under Stalin.
Nothing about Eisenstein's style is 'subtle' and all the better for this part two. Yet I would say that it wouldn't work as well as it does without part one, setting up this setting of the castle and its robed figures with their long beards and angular faces (at one point in part one especially as Ivan is supposedly dying I couldn't not think of a similar scene from The Dark Crystal, a demented, baroque example of parasites around a ruler). It's overall combined together a flawed masterpiece, working off of history and making it work for an almost modern setting. If one were to take out the dialog it would even be a great silent film. As it stands it's often very good, manic, and disturbing in the best possible ways.