Ivan IV overcomes the loss of his wife Anastasia to unite Russia and confound the plans of his aunt, Efrosinia Staritskaya to usurp the throne for her simpleton son, Vladimir.
Prevented from making a trilogy about life in the Central Asian desert, a film about Spain and a history of the Red Army, Sergei Eisenstein returned to the theatre in 1939. But, while directing a production of Wagner's Die Walküre for the Bolshoi, he hit upon the concept of synaesthesia and this form of sensory domino effect became his artistic impetus for Ivan the Terrible.
He began work on the screenplay in early 1941, but the threat of a Nazi invasion prompted the relocation of Mosfilm to Alma Ata in Kazakhstan and it was here that he completed the task of bending fact into myth. Shooting began during a heatwave in the summer of 1943 and proceeded in strict accordance with the storyboards that also inspired Sergei Prokofiev's score. His longtime cinematographer, Eduard Tissé, was confined to the exteriors, while Andrei Moskvin lit Isaac Shpinel's sumptuous sets and also filmed the director's sole colour sequence, which utilised Agfa stock confiscated from the Germans.
Eisenstein returned to Moscow in the autumn of 1944 to begin shaping his footage. Abandoning montage in favour of functional editing, he focussed on the mise-en-scène, in which the angular and highly expressive attitudes struck by the cast (which the outstanding Nikolai Cherkassov considered demeaning) were as crucial to his audiovisual strategy as the stylised décor.
But while Part One was awarded the Stalin Prize, it was accused of operatic formalism by some Soviet critics (particularly during the stunning Uspensky Cathedral sequence) and denounced as an apologia for Stalin's tyranny by many abroad. However, Part Two was censured by the Kremlin for the `misrepresentation of historical facts' and was withheld until 1958. Worse still, the four completed reels of Part Three were destroyed. But the surviving epic remains one of the boldest and most exciting experiments conducted within the restraints of Socialist Realism.
Eisenstein's masterpiece is a must-see for all, not just social realism fans.