The film opens in a vast, towering throne room in Moscow, during the coronation of Ivan with the approval of the Boyars, the hereditary class of affluent bourgeois who exercised de facto control over the state. Their smiles turn to angry frowns as the tall, confident teenager immediately declares himself Tsar of all of Russia and vows to marry Princess Anastasia; he will to extend and protect Russian borders and hold sway over the Boyars.
This scene will set a tone for both films. The coronation ceremony is deliberate and stately. The costumes are particularly ornate and bejeweled, apparently so heavy they must be difficult to wear. The acting style is declamatory and bombastic. Eisenstein begins here, and will continue throughout the film, to use dramatic close ups of faces. The actors he uses often look odd. Their features are sometimes exaggerated by lightning from below. His camera angles are oblique. Ivan’s opponents are seen as a menagerie of grotesque human caricatures, seen separately with no attempt to establish their spatial location.
It is impossible to look at those faces and not think immediately of the Danish silent film “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” made by Carl Theodore Dreyer in 1928. Eisenstein had almost certainly seen it before he began filming in the early 1940s, if not in Russia then in Hollywood, where after the success of his early films “Potemkin” and “October” he was invited in 1930 to make a film by Paramount. His projects were rejected by the studio, he became the target of anti-Communists, and he never made an American film. (He did however find himself greatly impressed by the early work of Walt Disney, and later declared “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” the greatest film ever made.)
During the trial of Joan of Arc, Dreyer placed his heroine in a subservient position below a bench of fearsome judges, who along with onlookers are seen in frowning or angry close ups, at oblique angles, in stylized lighting. If that was an influence on Eisenstein, so also might have been Dreyer’s set designs. Joan of Arc is seen placed in extreme architecture, its angled and exaggerated walls suggesting cold hostility.
Eisenstein’s sets are incompatibly larger, but often evoke the same look. Some of them are unadorned walls, arches, nooks, stairs and passageways. Others, the throne room for example, have walls covered with painted icons, decorations and bas relief. It’s tempting here to assume we’re looking at matte drawings or optical effects, but in some shots Eisenstein has characters walk into the background and behind pillars or posts, demonstrating the dimensionality. In many other dramatic shots he uses enormous and presumably real shadows, for example to show a huge image of Ivan’s head with its wickedly pointed beard, dwarfing the members of his court.