One of the many nowtrages to hit Twitter this week has been over Armando Iannucci’s new film The Death of Stalin, as Peter Hitchens attacked the very existence of the film, in a piece which was shared with the headline “You Wouldn’t Make A Comedy Out of the Last Days of Hitler, So Why Stalin?”
As one might imagine, this headline brought quite a lot of mockery, much of it based around Hitchens not knowing about the existence of Downfall memes, though my personal favourite line was a friend of mine who simply said “they lose me after the bunker scene”. But Hitchens actually had what almost amounted to a serious point.
His argument was that the left are far too lenient in their opinions towards Stalin, who is too often treated as a figure worthy of respect or admiration when compared to Hitler. And so far as this goes, there’s a lot of truth to it. Tankies are treated as tolerable, if risible, figures among much of the left, and Stalinism has become a daring pose for a particular type of “dirtbag left” shitposter (I recently had to block someone who I’ve known for a decade or so on Twitter after he started posting Holodomor denial. I don’t tolerate that shit even if others do.)
If Iannucci’s film had been made from that perspective, treating Stalin and his henchmen as essentially benign, comic figures, Hitchens’ view would have been entirely accurate. However, it’s very clear that Hitchens didn’t bother to look into the film at all before condemning it, because it’s an unflinching depiction of the monstrousness of Stalin’s regime, and one of the most horrifying films I’ve seen in a long, long time.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a comedy, and a very funny one — Iannucci is undoubtedly one of the most important comic talents of the last thirty years, and one of a tiny number of filmmakers in Britain actually capable of making a comedy feature film (for most people who pay attention, the phrase “British comedy film” is one of the most terrifying in the English language, conjuring up as it does images of Sex Lives of the Potato Men or Lesbian Vampire Killers). But this isn’t comedy even in the sense of Iannucci’s work on The Thick of It — though there’s a clear family resemblance there. Nothing “funny” actually happens, except in the sense of Mel Brooks’ dictum that “tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die”.
The comedy in Iannucci’s film comes entirely from the incongruity of people behaving in human, relatable, ways in a situation which is unutterably horrific. There are several comparisons that could be made — Brazil, several of the Coen Brothers’ films, and Hannibal all spring to mind, as well as Iannucci’s own earlier work — but the one that this film reminded me of more than anything else was I, Claudius.
Like that series (which I still consider the best thing ever made for TV), The Death of Stalin portrays real events of the most grotesque kind — massacres, rapes, torture — in an absolutely unflinching way, and elicits laughs not despite but because of our horror. The reign of Stalin is shown as a monstrous, cancerous, thing, a system rotten from the top down, where Stalin’s top advisers can joke among themselves about blowing people up with hand grenades, and can make these “jokes” while knowing that the people they’re joking with are on the list to be executed over the next few days.
And it’s a system which almost everyone knows is unjust, and yet in which everyone is complicit. Stalin himself is a monstrous tyrant who can have anyone killed at a whim, and everyone knows it, yet his death doesn’t rid the country of the tyranny — all it does is inspire an immediate scramble among his ministers to become the new dictator, both out of lust for power and out of a terror for their own position.
And it’s funny precisely because every character is recognisably human and has recognisably human concerns in this inhuman situation — one of the funniest moments comes when Stalin’s ministers gather round his dying body and try to lift it to carry him to his bed, but have to jostle for position to avoid kneeling in his urine, while also ensuring that they are positioned by rank. And moments like these are deliciously underplayed — that could easily be a broad, Pythonesque, scene, but instead it’s played entirely as drama. Much like I, Claudius, the film manages to evoke both utter horror and shocked laughter simply by getting a great cast to play horrific events as if they were everyday occurrences — which in their context they were.
Every character is entirely comprehensible, even though utterly reprehensible. Simon Russell Beale has been, rightly, getting huge plaudits for his portrayal of Beria as a power-crazed sadist who wants power simply in order to hurt people physically, mentally, and sexually, but Steve Buscemi’s portrayal of Kruschev, as a man who has no particular taste for causing hurt but who also has no compunction about destroying anyone utterly if it meant keeping himself safe, is also superb. Meanwhile Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is a weak, petty, fool, who gets to the top (at least temporarily) only because he’s no threat to anyone, while Molotov (Michael Palin) is a heartbreaking true believer, who forgives Stalin even when his beloved wife is sent off to be tortured, because Stalin can do no wrong.
The whole cast, though, is wonderful, and even relatively small parts go to immense talents like Paul Whitehouse and Paddy Considine, who make the most of them. (One does wish, though, that the film could have had more women in important roles, though it does the best it can given the male nature of the Politburo — the pianist Maria Yudina, for example, is given a fairly large role in the story despite having no real connection with it in reality).
The film compresses and invents events (the time between Stalin’s death and Beria’s execution, for example, was nine months rather than the handful of days shown in the film), but in its broad strokes it’s accurate (and many of the events around the death itself are far more accurate than one would expect — generally speaking the funnier an event, the more likely it is to be firmly based in reality). And what it shows is that politics based on authoritarianism, national myths, and heroic leaders who will not hear opposing viewpoints leads to death on a massive scale, and to pain, and to heartbreak, and to terror.
If Hitchens could bring himself to watch the film, he’d discover that far from glorifying Stalin, it portrays him as a monster, dying in his own piss while being spat on by someone he’d considered a close friend, with those he’d brought to power racing to undo his actions, his idiot son in imminent danger of treason charges, and his loving daughter being urged to flee the country for her own safety.
It’s a film anyone who hates authoritarianism, dictatorship, and bullying, should watch, this year of all years.
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