Issue 28 (2010)

Pavel Lungin: Tsar (2009)

reviewed by Kevin M. F. Platt © 2010

tsarPavel Lungin’s 2009 film Tsar attracted a good deal of criticism for its historical inaccuracies, as is often the case with historical films and literary works. Now, without denying the inherent interest of such concerns for audiences and critics, it should be said that these questions are even more misguided than usual when directed at the film under consideration. At a dramatic climax of Tsar, Metropolitan of Moscow Filipp (Oleg Iankovskii) is forced to serve as judge in a public trial of his own nephew and of several other notables, who have been trained by means of horrible tortures in the dungeons of Ivan the Terrible (Petr Mamonov) to confess to crimes they did not commit. As this heavy-handed and anachronistic evocation of the show trials of a later era makes clear, Tsar is as much a film about the twentieth century as about the late sixteenth. This should come as no surprise, considering that it would be impossible anyway to make a film about Ivan IV without evoking Sergei Eisenstein’s legendary uncompleted film trilogy of the 1940s about Russia’s first crowned tsar—a project universally interpreted as an allegorical representation of Stalin in the guise of Ivan. In this sense, reference to Stalin and his era is pre-loaded into any contemporary representation of Ivan.

Furthermore, Tsar should undoubtedly also be taken as a commentary on the present, given recent developments in Russian cultural life. On one hand, there is the ongoing rehabilitation of Stalin in the public mind, evidenced in polls, in new policies for history textbooks, in the “Name—Russia” internet and TV-media events of 2009, etc. On the other hand, there is Vladimir Sorokin’s novella Day in the Life of an Oprichnik (Den’ oprichnika, 2006), a science-fiction parable of neo-medieval state terror in 2027, intended to warn Russians about the danger of a resurgence of the heritage of Ivan and Stalin. In the present Russian historical imagination, the names of Stalin and Ivan are linked together as iconic illustrations of state-initiated violence in the service of ostensibly grand political or social goals. Works like Lungin’s employ these figures to debate the relationship between subjects and state and the legacy of despotic authoritarian politics in Russia today. In other words, Tsaris not a history textbook or a window onto the deep past, but rather a manifesto on contemporary society and politics.

tsarLungin himself made this clear enough in his public appearances during the film’s production, although precisely how the director intended for his work to comment on the present remains obscure. In one interview Lungin suggests that the amorality and anarchy of the contemporary scene signal a resurgence of the apocalyptic sensibility of Ivan’s era: “This sense of the end of the world, of the end of time, this feeling that in anticipation of the Last Judgment all is permitted—this is in some strange way very close to us.” On the other hand, although Lungin’s portrait of Ivan is anything but complementary, he accords the tsar great historical significance, noting: “The theme of the Terrible tsar is foundational for our country, for it was precisely he who transformed Russian history.” He rounds out the interview by crossing the allegorical wires and deemphasizing Ivan’s relevance in Russia’s present: “His specter hovers over us to the present day, sometimes growing closer, sometimes further away. Now, thank god, it is growing more distant. But it has at times come very close to us. Ivan the Terrible is the eternal temptation of Russia” (Shigareva). Readers are left wondering: are we to fear the imminent rise of a new terrible tsar, given the anarchic and amoral present? Are we to recognize the historical necessity of state terror and authoritarianism? Or is the whole question moot because, “thank god,” those days are past?

tsarViewers of the film are hard pressed to sort out this allegorical confusion. The film’s plot, based on bestselling author Aleksei Ivanov’s screenplay (recently published in novel form) re­volves around the relationship between the tsar and Metropolitan Filipp, whom Ivan martyred for his public criticism of the depredations of the oprichnina (Ivanov). Ivan, brilliantly portrayed by Mamonov, is mired in animalistic violence and the dupe of venal advisors and of his vicious “eastern” wife Maria Temriukovna (Ramilia Iskander). He is motivated by paranoia, misguided apocalyptic religiosity and a desire for national greatness. Yet Ivan is anything but a “towering figure of history.” In the first sequence of the film, Lungin shows Ivan in a dark chapel, intoning passages from the Book of Revelation concerning the riders of the apocalypse, intercut with menacing slow-motion shots of Ivan’s oprichniki returning from a day of mayhem. Subsequently, Ivan is shown progressing from his chapel through the palace as slaves and courtiers cover his tattered and dirty shift with successive layers of royal finery, lastly placing the symbols of power in his hands as he emerges to face his people. Yet this is no costume drama: the camera takes no joy in pageantry and Ivan is not one whit ennobled by his transformation. Encapsulated in heavy gold embroidery and ornament, he remains decrepit, half-crazed and obviously unfit to govern his own court, let alone a kingdom. Iurii Krasavin’s score is ominous, moody and disturbing. The film’s most memorable images of the tsar are claustrophobic scenes of psychotic attacks at night, when he is haunted by executed boyars. Lungin’s and Mamonov’s singular achievement is that their representation of Ivan as a mad, bloodthirsty tyrant, although extreme, does not come off as forced or caricatured.

tsarFilipp is no less brilliantly portrayed by Iankovskii, in what was to be his final role before an untimely death. The metropolitan is a classic Russian holy man, who resists Ivan’s evil with love of truth and readiness to submit to divinely sanctioned authority, no matter how unjustly it is wielded. The film chronicles the relationship between Ivan and Filipp from the moment that Ivan calls him to Moscow up to the metropolitan’s death. In the most excruciating moments of the film, Filipp is forced to witness the brutal public torture and execution of his nephew, portrayed with an unapologetic and unaestheticized frankness. Called upon to offer a false confession to relieve his nephew’s suffering, Filipp refuses, offering an object lesson in both the greatness of the human spirit and in the weakness of non-violence as a tool against tyranny. The production of Tsar involved the Russian clerical establishment in various ways: Iankovskii reportedly asked for and received Patriarch Aleksii II’s blessing for work on the film, Lungin engaged a number of clergymen as advisors, and the practicing priest Ivan Okhlobystin performed as Ivan’s blasphemous and crazed fool Vassian (reportedly, he has asked to be released from the clergy in light of the incongruity of his appearance in this role; see Nechaev). The influence of the church shows in the latter portion of the plot, which switches from realistic naturalism to supernatural religiosity when Filipp performs a number of miracles before finally being put to death at Ivan’s order. (For some reason, the film’s critics did not think to critique those scenes for their historical inaccuracy…).

tsarPerhaps the most obvious reference to Eisenstein’s Ivan films comes early in Tsar, when Ivan joins a crowd of his subjects in lamenting the absence of a metro­politan in Moscow. Praying frenziedly, surrounded by his wild-eyed advisors and his cackling tsaritsa, Ivan is hauled on a carpet across the snow with a crowd of common people following behind him in a long procession. The shot recalls Eisenstein’s image of the procession of supplicants begging Ivan to return to the throne he has vacated after the death of Anastasia at the end of part I of the trilogy. But Lungin neatly reverses the implications of Eisenstein’s scene: while the original shows the common people longing to submit to the order of their tsar, who stands grand and imposing before them, Lungin’s remake shows the Russian people being swept along with Ivan in his foam-at-the-mouth madness. Ultimately, from this and other evidence one may infer that Lungin’s film presents a radically incoherent allegory of Russia’s present. The film’s portrait of Ivan as an unredeemed monster would appear to unite it with other anti-tyrannical representations of Ivan and Stalin, such as Sorokin’s Day in the Life of an Oprichnik, which warn against a possible resurgence of tyranny. On the other hand, as Lungin suggests in the interview cited above, his critique is also aimed at the anarchy, amorality and spiritual emptiness of the present. In this latter aspect, it participates in the current backlash against the excesses and anarchy of the 1990s and resonates with the longing for traditional patriotic values and order that dominates much political rhetoric in Russia these days—tendencies that have supported the consolidation of power in Putin’s “sovereign democracy.”

Perhaps this incoherence is intentional, for it leaves what I would term the “historical sublime” as the sole decipherable message of the film. No matter how awful the depredations of bloodstained rulers like Ivan, no matter how great the threat of new eruptions of despotism in Russia, such matters are in the end of little significance in the face of the transcendent supernatural achievements of a saint. Clearly, the film does not legitimate Ivan’s reign of terror. However, it does show terror to be “useful” as a proving ground for holiness. In the end, Lungin is not, perhaps, urging his Russian viewers to sort out Russia’s history of mass violence and authoritarianism or their re­la­tions­hip to the state at all, but rather inviting them to bow to the ineffable benefits of suffering for the Russian national spirit.

Kevin M. F. Platt
University of Pennsylvania

Comment on this review via the LJ Forum

Works Cited

Ivanov, Aleksei, Letoischislenie ot Ioanna (St. Petersburg: Azbuka-klassika, 2009).

Nechaev, Aleksandr, “Tsar’ Pavla Lungina: Pered nachalom s”emok Iankovskii poluchil bloagoslovlenie u Aleksiia II,” Komsomol’skaia pravda (3 November 2009).

Shigareva, Iuliia, “Pavel Lungin: ‘Ivan Groznyi—vechnoe iskushenie Rossii,’” Argumenty i fakty 16 (16 April 2008).


Tsar, Russia, 2009
Color, 118 minutes
Director: Pavel Lungin
Screenplay: Aleksei Ivanov, Pavel Lungin
Cinematography: Tom Stern
Music: Iurii Krasavin
Art Direction: Sergei Ivanov
Costume Design: Natal’ia Dziubenko, Ekaterina Dyminskaia
Cast: Petr Mamonov, Oleg Iankovskii, Ivan Okhlobystin, Aleksandr Domogarov, Ramiliia Iskander, Iurii Kuznetsov, Aleksei Makarov, Anastasiia Dontsova, Ville Haapasalo
Executive Producers: Pavel Lungin, Vasilii Bernkhardt, Ol’ga Vasil’eva
Production: Studio of Pavel Lungin, Profit Cinema

Pavel Lungin: Tsar (2009)

reviewed by Kevin M. F. Platt © 2010

Updated: 21 Mar 10