The Only Movie Banned for Being Too Historically Accurate
If you’re a Batgirl fan who’s disappointed about the recent cancellation of the movie, take heart: you’re not alone. Movie cancellations are not uncommon, and historical movies, in particular, are often criticized for their inaccuracies. Sometimes, these inaccuracies are the result of efforts to present a more marketable or politically correct version of history. Other times, they are the result of a director’s creative interpretation of events.
One of the most famous examples of historical inaccuracy in film can be found in the work of Sergei Eisenstein, the greatest filmmaker in Russia. Eisenstein was known for his disregard of facts and his creative use of imagery, which made him a favorite of the Soviet propaganda department. He was responsible for some of the most influential scenes in movie history, including the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin.
Despite his success, Eisenstein was not immune to the whims of Stalin, who was not just the supreme leader of the Soviet Union but also its de facto top movie producer. Stalin had a grudge against reality and truth and was known for his paranoia and fevered tantrums. He demanded that movies adhere to prescribed political and historical narratives, which often meant rewriting history to suit his purposes.
Eisenstein’s magnum opus, Ivan the Terrible, was no exception. Stalin was particularly critical of the portrayal of the 16th-century ruler, who was a notorious despot rumored to have murdered his own son. Stalin refused to cooperate in a POW-prisoner-swap deal with the Germans to trade his captured son Yakov Dzhugashvili for some Nazi generals, which sent young Yakov into a suicidal depression. The rejection reputedly sent young Yakov into a suicidal depression, but his true fate remains in doubt.
Eisenstein’s trilogy was banned, and the third installment was canceled. It’s not clear whether Eisenstein was a loyal stooge or a clever filmmaker who got caught making fun of his boss, but the truth is that nothing got made without state approval.
In the end, Stalin died alone on the floor, dying of stroke because no one had the courage to barge into his bedroom to check on him. Eisenstein’s heart condition killed him, and a historically-faithful film would have surely cast him into an early grave.
Despite the inaccuracies, Ivan the Terrible remains a popular figure in Russia today, in some part thanks to Stalin’s creative editing of history books and Eisenstein’s craft. There’s no doubt that the third installment would have been one hell of a movie, but sometimes, the truth does not set you free.
Batgirl fans take solace. Yours isn’t the first movie to get unceremoniously canceled.
George Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four of a political regime that touts: “Who controls the past controls the future.” He was talking about Russia, not a hypothetical dystopian sci-fi plot. Historical movies are often dragged over the coals for their inability to adhere to the real story, rewriting history and tweaking details to tell a more politically correct or marketable version of the past. On the flip side, we have the Soviet Union, a nation that is synonymous with playing very fast and loose with truth.
When the greatest filmmaker in Russia, Sergei Eisenstein, staged the storming of the Tsar’s Winter Palace in Ivan the Terrible, Part IIIhe reinterpreted it as a bloody, pivotal battle that altered history. Though it won him praise internationally, modern historians now admit that all the peasant blood running in the gutter was probably the Tsar’s wine collection flowing down the streets. But who cares as long as it looks good on film. Eisenstein’s flare made him fit right in the USSR’s party elite.
Eisenstein’s creative use of imagery and disregard for facts made him the go-to director for the Soviet propaganda department. It would come back to haunt him. Unfortunately for Eisenstein, Joseph Stalin was not just the supreme leader, but the nation’s de facto top movie producer. Stalin’s grudge against reality and truth didn’t just apply to his own lifetime, but hundreds of years prior. Not even Joseph Stalin’s favorite director was safe from the dictator’s paranoia and fevered tantrums.
The Father of Modern Cinema
Except for D.W. Griffiths, arguably no one shaped movies more than Eisenstein, his quick edits modernizing a medium that had previously been static and boring. Looking to alter what film could be and rocking a haircut that looked like the Bride of Frankenstein, Eisenstein for all and intents and purposes was the Russian movie industry. In the early days of the USSR, he, more than anyone, was trusted by the state to craft the prestige films shown abroad, movies that had to fit the prescribed political and historical narratives.
Obedient workers who didn’t ask questions were good, farmers who owned their own tractors were evil, and Stalin was wise and benevolent. The restrictions on what he could say and what stories he could tell might have freed him up to focus more on the visuals and staging powerful scenes. He is most famous for creating one of the most copied and influential scenes in movie history, the Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkinlater referenced in movies such as The Untouchables by Brian De Palma, Brazil by Terry Gilliam, and Foreign Correspondent by Alfred Hitchcock, to name just a few. Chris Nolan can only fantasize about the level of fanboyism that surrounds the fabled Soviet director. In 1944, Eisenstein released his magnum opus, Ivan the Terrible (Part One). It was instantly declared one of the greatest films ever made. Too bad it would ruin his career.
Ivan was a role model of sorts for Stalin. “The tsar was more that Stalin’s hero; he was his alter ego,” one historian said, though noting, “even Eisenstein’s cinematic epic was no hagiographical enough for Stalin.” Evidently, old Joe didn’t really know all that much about Ivan, because the 16th-Century ruler was a notorious despot and is rumored to have murdered his own son. Through an unusual and grim twist, Stalin is partially responsible for his own son’s death as well, refusing to cooperate in a POW-prisoner-swap deal with the Germans to trade his captured son Yakov Dzhugashvili (Stalin being a fake surname) for some Nazi generals. The rejection reputedly sent young Yakov into a suicidal depression, but his true fate remains in doubt. That wasn’t the only parallel between the two rulers, as Ivan committed his own massacres and purging of rivals through a secret police as he went insane.
In a transcribed meeting between the director, Stalin, the Foreign Minister, and other officials, Stalin criticized the biopic for denigrating Ivan, Stalin uttering, “Your tsar has come out as being indecisive, he resembles Hamlet.” Say what you want about the guy, at least he knew his Shakespeare. Among other critiques of the movie was the inclusion of too much religion and Eisenstein’s wardrobe selection. But at the wish of Stalin, Eisenstein was asked to break the upcoming sequel into two parts to do the character justice, what Stalin’s warped mind considered justice. Awkward silences with Stalin tended to result in permanent silences, if you catch our drift. Eisenstein, by all accounts, didn’t rock the boat, but neither did he tamper with the actual events in the life of Ivan the Terrible.
The Trilogy That Went to the Gulag
When the sequel finally wrapped production it was met with an icy reception from Stalin. Now divided up into a three-parter, Part II drew the leader’s ire for its portrayal of the deranged king wracked with guilt. A tsar recognizing his mistakes and feeling shame for his moral failings hit a little too close to home for Stalin, who at this point was now convinced his doctors were attempting to poison him. The movie added insult to (nonexistent) injury. Soon he would reap what he sowed. Stalin died alone on the floor, dying of stroke because no one had the courage to barge into his bedroom to check on him. In the end, he learned nothing from his idol.
Eisenstein’s trilogy fared no better than Stalin. Part II got banned, not shown in Stalin’s lifetime. Part IIIalready in principal photography stages was canceled, which considering the value of life in the USSR, was not all that surprising. Stalin didn’t like people speculating on palace intrigue, and any film which showed such provacative material could only make people make ponder if their own ruler was just as insane, as if they didn’t already connect the dots.
To this day, it’s not clear whether Eisenstein was a loyal stooge or a clever filmmaker who got caught making fun of his boss. Nothing got made without state approval. No script was approved, no director assigned, no permit allowed until the authorities inspected a film top to bottom. Some stills from the third film have popped up, but we’ll never know how much was completed by the time of Eisenstein’s death. As for Ivan, he remains a popular figure in Russia today, in some part thanks to Stalin’s creative editing of history books and Eisenstein’s craft. Should Stalin sound like a lunatic for deifying a tyrant, he’s not an anomaly.
With Eisenstein’s eye, a budget supplied by the USSR, and a score by legendary composer Sergei Prokofiev, there’s little doubt the third installment would have been one hell of a movie. But had Eisenstein’s heart condition not killed him, a historically-faithful film would have surely cast him into an early grave. Sometimes the truth does not set you free.