Ivan the Terrible was Sergei Eisenstein’s final film, created as the Soviet Union was being overrun by Nazi Germany. The biopic film is a tribute to the sixteenth-century Russian Tsar Ivan IV, known as “The Terrible” in the West. Despite that Western moniker, Russians remember Ivan IV as a modernizer of medieval Russia who unified the country to brilliant military victories. That’s exactly what we see in Part One of this movie. You can understand why the Stalinist regime was happy to publish it.
Part Two of Ivan the Terrible wasn’t so well received by the Soviet censors. It portrayed Tsar Ivan’s increasingly unhinged and paranoid behavior. As such, it got banned for a decade and was only released after Stalin’s death.
Part Three sadly never made it past the earliest stages of shooting.
Roger Ebert at rogerebert.com (2012): “Why are “Ivan the Terrible, Parts I and II” so routinely included on lists of the great films? I imagine few viewers really love it (although watching it inspires a visual fascination). In part it may be because Eisenstein has become one of the Sacred Monsters of the cinema. Film students are brought up to reverence him.”
Jonathan Rosenbaum at criterion.com (2009): “This has always been the Eisenstein feature that’s given me the most pleasure—the greatest Flash Gordon serial ever made as well as a showcase for the Russian master’s boldest graphics.”
Andrew Grossman at sensesofcinema.com (2011): “Today, Ivan the Terrible may remain something of an enigma, the overwrought yet incomplete testament of a genius unluckily caught between conflicting needs for artistic authenticity and political self-preservation.”
Joan Neuberger at notevenpast.org (2019): “Ivan the Terrible is a difficult film because it continually presents us with contradictions and questions, it forces us to respond to unfamiliar, difficult, and ambiguous cues, and it denies us a hero to identify with or a villain to hate. It is a great film because it creates a portrait of power that resists simplification and provokes us to engage with hard questions, precisely the hard questions the Stalinist artist was supposed to suppress.”