Part I

In 1996, while I was at Johns Hopkins University, a student I knew committed murder.  He shot another student — once in the head, then once in the chest — before surrendering himself.  This happened on campus.  At the time, I worked as an editor for the school paper, the News-Letter.   Someone rushed into the office — it was the middle of Wednesday evening, and we were laying out the paper — and announced the news, and our editor-in-chief started shouting, “What happened?  What’s going on?”

Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part I seeks to explain, perhaps, how a person becomes ruthless.  Ivan, at first, doesn’t seem so terrible.  Ivan is horrified when the Tartars shoot down the captives Ivan has strung up on the battlements than surrender them to “the uncircumsized ones.”

Eisenstein suggests three things that may have prompted the change:

Ivan is beset on all sides by sinister profiles, all German Expressionistic shadows and angles.  When Ivan, nearly dead from illness, asks the boyars to pledge allegiance to his son, they turn away, one by one, and this betrayal is almost too much to bear.  The illness itself may have affected his brain.  Or perhaps it was the death of love — his wife, Anastasia, poisoned by politicking boyars, though, historically, her actual cause of death is unknown.

We may never know what drives someone over the edge.

Part II

In the months after the shooting at Hopkins, psychologists diagnosed the killer with numerous personality disorders.  In going through the emails of the two young men, the police found an odd, quasi-Victorian formality to them:  “We once again revealed and expressed ourselves to deeper levels and found profound joy in our bond.”  It was strongly hinted, but never proven, that the two had had some sort of sexual contact.  Months before the murder, the killer sent a message to his victim:  “I’ve cried out for your assistance, presence and help…. You know I’m a private person, very much an introvert, and when finally I wish to talk, to be silenced by one’s friend really hurts.”  And, on the day of the killing, he wrote in his journal, “This was a violation of me, my rights, and my dignity.  But I was embarrassed and kind of humiliated and afraid, and I didn’t want to destroy a good friendship over some act [in] which he overstepped his bounds.”

Ivan the Terrible, Part II sees Ivan succumbing to loneliness.  His movements are arch; he extends and cranes his neck like a bird, pecking at crumbs.  He draws his oprichniks close — his iron band — but they only aid his spiral into paranoia, isolation, summary executions.  Stalin, upon screening the film, summoned Eisenstein.  “Ivan the Terrible was very cruel,” Stalin told him.  “You can depict him as a cruel man, but you have to show why he had to be cruel.”

Eisenstein died of a heart attack before he could complete the trilogy.

I wonder if the answers are in that third film:  how a man becomes cruel, how he becomes a killer.

Part III