A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
Joan Neuberger’s This Thing of Darkness (Cornell University Press, 2019) illustrates, perhaps more than any other cinema studies text I’ve read, the staggering attention to detail some filmmakers bring to their work. Subtitled Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia, it chronicles the inception, troubled (to put it mildly) production, and historical impact of Sergei Eisenstein’s two-part “biography” of the infamous Russian Tsar. I must admit: before reading this book, I agreed with Roger Ebert’s defeated suggestion that “to hail Ivan the Terrible is more a duty than a pleasure” (2012), but Neuberger’s exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) analysis makes a strong case for revisiting these films with a fresh perspective.
While many understand the Ivan saga as a thinly veiled commentary on Stalinist Russia (or as self-hating propaganda), Neuberger broadens her scope: “This book is the first to analyze Eisenstein’s great masterpiece by combining historical, political, cinematic, and cultural approaches” (2). Indeed, the opening chapter, “The Potholed Path,” concerns the extraordinarily difficult circumstances under which the writer-director operated. To name but a few examples, he had to relocate to Kazakhstan when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, endure multiple sicknesses, relocate production back to Moscow, and contend with the constant demands and constraints of Stalin’s Cinema Committee (43-44, 52, 61, 65).
The following chapter, “Shifts in Time,” makes a case that Eisenstein was just as gifted a historian as he was an artist. To see Ivan the Terrible as mere metaphor (Ivan = Stalin, etc.) overlooks Eisenstein’s complex understanding of human history, which he likened to a spiral staircase: “As individuals and societies move forward (or upward) through time…we repeatedly, inevitably circle back to our most primal experiences, but at incrementally higher stages of consciousness” (114). Neuberger applies this spiral both macrocosmically (Stalin’s Russia as a return to the bloodshed of Ivan’s) and microcosmically (Ivan’s brutal reign as a return to his childhood desire for revenge against his mother’s murderers).
These parallels guide “Power Personified,” in which Neuberger proposes that Eisenstein was not only dissecting Stalin’s power but also powerful men as a whole (126). Key to the filmmaker’s approach was the aforementioned spiral and its unique, cyclical understanding of historical power dynamics (128). The author introduces a new, corollary metaphor in the next chapter, “Power Projected”: that of a musical fugue in which Ivan operates as its “theme” and secondary characters are its “variations” (187). In keeping with Eisenstein’s obsession with dialectical images, “The spiral depicts Ivan reaching for power and rising ever further and higher…while the fugue shows him descending, falling, becoming increasingly demonic and increasingly alone” (239).
How Eisenstein went about pulling all of these threads together into one unified viewing experience is the focus of the aptly titled fifth chapter, “How to Do It.” Neuberger suggests that Ivan the Terrible can only be appreciated through a synthesis of both the intellectual (“logical”) and the sensory-emotional (“pre-logical”), and Eisenstein helps viewers do this through polyphonic montage: “the weaving of audio, visual, sensory, and intellectual voices in every frame” (300, 302). The author puts theory into practice when she dedicates nearly ten pages to dissecting the use of montage in Ivan’s fake death scene from Part I. Her attention to detail is, like Eisenstein’s, astounding, but she may lose some readers here; unless you watch the actual scene in tandem with the reading (with frequent pauses and replays), her multi-layered explication is nearly impenetrable.
Since Part I won the “Stalin Prize” after its release, many assume that it was universally praised in Russia. While Stalin indeed took greater issue with Part II (it was banned until 1958), Neuberger makes it clear that Part I was not without its controversies. Though decidedly tamer than its sequel, the first installment was initially seen by many as “a film no one could be sure he or she understood, a film that many considered to be ‘un-Russian’” (Neuberger 317). The author also offers an alternative explanation for Stalin’s vehement hatred of Part II, suggesting that its blatant homoeroticism (exemplified by the infamous “Dance of the Oprichniki” sequence, which features men dressing in drag) irritated the dictator more than its damning portrait of Ivan (322).
Much like the director central to her text, Neuberger successfully demonstrates how the films’ seemingly-disparate elements (historical, psychological, stylistic, autobiographical, etc.) can be fully appreciated only when considered in relation to one another: a textual montage about cinematic montage, if you will. The writing is erudite but precise, and Neuberger shows no fear in stripping away the self-seriousness often ascribed to Eisenstein’s work: “Despite its violent and tragic subject, Ivan the Terrible is, at times, shockingly comical. A sly smile and an ironic grimace lurk just below the surface” (4).
Her claims, which often buck common interpretations, are backed up with meticulous evidence, including Eisenstein’s own notes from before, during, and after production. Scholars will savor Neuberger’s frequent references to Eisenstein’s personal writings, which are often poetic in their erratic imagery: “‘currents flow from small cells of grey matter of the brain, through the cranium and the side of bookcases…into the hearts of the books…and, in response to the flow of thoughts, they hurl themselves at my head’” (16).
Now, did This Thing of Darkness inspire me to re-watch the actual films? To be honest, not really. Watching them again would be a bit of a chore, like literature students trudging through Moby Dick because they “just have to” read it. But did she convince me that Eisenstein was a brilliant, subversive artist who crafted a misunderstood, underappreciated masterpiece? Absolutely. At the end of the day, I would much rather read Neuberger’s next book (or one of Eisenstein’s, for that matter).
Ebert, Roger. “Great Movie: Ivan the Terrible, Parts I & 2.” https://www.rogerebert.com
/reviews/great-movie-ivan-the-terrible-parts-i-and-ii. Accessed 28 September 2019.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.