Laughing at Stalin

My esteemed friend Bill Niven posted this insightful review on FB of the Armando Iannucci film about the death of Stalin. He asks an important question. Would anyone make a comedy about the demise of Hitler and the grotesques of the Nazi regime? Arguably Brecht tried to do that – but who laughs now? There is a knotty issue here, as Bill points out – do we not know enough about the Stalin period, the mass starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, to say nothing of the terrible human cost of the purges? Perhaps the same knowledge gap applies to China under Mao, though as far as I know there’s no Maoist comedy in the pipeline. Right wing historians worsen this ‘Uncle Jo’ paradox: they are forever proposing history as a kind of competition to determine who was ‘most evil’. Just as totalitarian history may not be funny, neither is it a kind of theological game show.

Here’s Bill’s post:

Did I enjoy the “Death of Stalin”. It was certainly funny, witty lines, gags, sharp and feisty dialogues. And it was well-acted, the whole acting team blended and contrasted well, growing into their roles perceptibly as the film wore on. An evening’s good entertainment, then? Perhaps, except I don’t find it easy to laugh at the murderous purges of Stalin and the NKVD. One could argue, no doubt, that there was something farcical about the constantly shifting policies behind the purges, with today’s hero becoming tomorrow’s victim, or even today’s victim, as success and profile almost inevitably bred an ever-accelerating climate of suspicion. But the ridiculousness was a cruel and vindictive one; it leaves little scope for humour. Imagine a film about the Nazis in which we were invited to laugh with and at Himmler, Heydrich, Hitler and Goebbels as they went about their killing work. Funny films about Hitler generally avoid provoking laughter in the context of the Holocaust. “Death of Stalin” exhibits little such caution in its treatment of Stalin, Beria, Malenkov and the others in the Central Committee. Is this because Stalinism is something we still know too little about, because it is still regarded as a kind of cosy totalitarianism, or because Russia’s and the Soviet Union’s history still seems to be swathed in hazy myths rather than seen for what it was? The problem with “Death of Stalin” is that it has no distance to its characters: Beria and Zhukov were brilliantly depicted, Malenkov too. The sarcastic bickering and backbiting are fascinating, the repartee absorbing, but there is a lack of any outside perspective on the perpetrators which makes us truly shudder at their murderousness. I liked the story about the pianist – it was she whose note, in the film, triggers Stalin’s death, revenge for her family, perhaps also revenge for music, and the Shostakovich-like score reinforces this idea. But her credibility, indignation and resistance are quickly undermined by her susceptibility to roubles. So, I laughed, but did not feel comfortable. Stalinism was not a parlour game. “Death of Stalin” turns it into one.


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