After the success of Eisenstein and composer Sergei Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, the idea of a film based on the life of Ivan the Terrible, the great unifier of 16th century Russia, appealed to Soviet authorities (especially Joseph Stalin). The result was this phantasmagoric magnum opus—envisioned as a trilogy, but interrupted after the second installment brought Eisenstein into conflict with government apparatchiks. Part one begins with Archduke Ivan crowning himself Tsar despite widespread opposition. Eisenstein then chronicles Ivan’s marriage to Anastasia, his wars against the Tartars, his near death through illness and finally—in one of the most remarkable scenes in all of cinema—his return to the throne.

“A majestic synthesis of disparate forms, Sergei Eisenstein’s final film seems to be as much a ballet or an opera or a moving painting (or a mutant kabuki show) as it is a movie. As elaborately scored by the distinguished composer Sergei Prokofiev, the two-part Ivan the Terrible is a spectacle unlike any other.”
—J. Hoberman