Shortlisted for the Pushkin House Book Prize 2020
Sergei Eisenstein's unfinished masterpiece, Ivan the Terrible, was no ordinary movie. Commissioned by Joseph Stalin in 1941 to justify state terror in the sixteenth century and in the twentieth, the film's politics, style, and epic scope aroused controversy even before it was released. In This Thing of Darkness, Joan Neuberger offers a sweeping account of the conception, making, and reception of Ivan the Terrible that weaves together Eisenstein's expansive thinking and experimental practice with a groundbreaking new view of artistic production under Stalin.
Drawing on Eisenstein's unpublished production notebooks, diaries, and manuscripts, Neuberger's riveting narrative chronicles Eisenstein's personal, creative, and political challenges and reveals the ways cinematic invention, artistic theory, political critique, and historical and psychological analysis went hand in hand in this famously complex film. Neuberger's bold arguments and daring insights into every aspect of Eisenstein's work during this period, together with her ability to lucidly connect his wide-ranging late theory with his work on Ivan, show the director exploiting the institutions of Soviet artistic production not only to expose the cruelties of Stalin and his circle but to challenge the fundamental principles of Soviet ideology itself. Ivan the Terrible, she argues, shows us one of the world's greatest filmmakers and one of the 20th century's greatest artists observing the world around him and experimenting with every element of film art to explore the psychology of political ambition, uncover the history of recurring cycles of violence and lay bare the tragedy of absolute power.