A Comedy of Terrors: The Death of Stalin in the Age of Putin
“In my opinion, theater shouldn’t give advice to citizens” wrote Vaclav Havel, in one of the last interviews he gave preceding his death in 2011. “Theater is there to search for questions. It doesn’t give you instructions.”
Director Armando Iannucci seems to have taken Havel’s artistic charge to heart in his new film The Death of Stalin, a slapstick political comedy improbably set against the ghastly backdrop of Soviet totalitarianism. Diving headlong into Stalin-era Soviet politics, the Veep director delivers a comedic masterpiece that is both riotously funny and disturbingly dark, one that leaves the audience questioning the oft banal nature of evil and humor’s role in confronting it.
Stalin’s titular demise is not the only death that haunts the film. The Death of Stalin is a veritable flood of execution, torture, implied rape and one particularly grisly scene that involves the incineration of a recently slain corpse. Peculiar imagery for a gag-heavy farce, but the absurd dissonance between shocking violence and side-clutching humor serves as the basis for the film’s appeal.
Some of the more horrifying aspects of The Death of Stalin are less on-the-nose. More often than not, they occur just out of sight. Secret police dungeons frame grisly dialogue sessions as audience members are privy to the screams of tortured victims and the sound of gunshots. Scenes of young girls being selected for Lavrentiy Beria’s all too well-documented predations offer a disturbing and at times unwelcome break from all the toilet humor and political scheming.
Political executions feature heavily but are more often absurd than tragic. Time and again we see prisoners, guards, and unlucky bystanders being executed at the drop of a hat, many of them remaining devoted communists to the very end. In one scene reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch, a line of prisoners who are being summarily executed seamlessly make the switch from dutifully shouting “long live Stalin” to “long live Malenkov” as they learn that Stalin has died. Death is treated comically, without reverence, and—with the notable exception of that of the film’s namesake—without ceremony. The patent absurdity of all the death and violence in the film reflects the contempt with which human life was actually treated back in the USSR, and how it is treated under communist dictatorships today.
Most of the film’s (uniformly glowing) reviews have gone out of their way to compare the tumultuous political climate surrounding Stalin’s death to the chaos of the Trump administration. One reviewer makes a rather uncharitable comparison between Stalin’s murder lists and Donald Trump’s twitter. At times, it feels as if these glowing appraisals are more interested in mining the film for political zingers than in evaluating Death on its own merits.
This sort of political posturing has led many to overlook the fact that The Death of Stalin actually has had political ramifications in the real world. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film’s reception has not been the ecstatic reviews in US publications but the decidedly hostile reaction of Russian authorities. Following the film’s overseas release, the Russian Ministry of Culture cancelled its distribution license and released a statement claiming that the film was “an insulting mockery of the entire Soviet past.” The former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan quickly followed suit. Russia’s government described the film as “ideological warfare” and pro-Western propaganda, pronouncing that it violated “a moral boundary between the critical analysis of history and mockery of it.” For a country that continues to idolize one of the twentieth century’s most horrific dictators and routinely whitewashes its own violent past, this is quite an extraordinary claim.
Far from being a principled defense of historical or cultural integrity, this move on the part of Putin’s government reveals that the Russian Federation—like the Soviet Union before it—is far from immune to satire. Claims that the film “desecrates [Russia’s] historical symbols” and fosters “extremism” merely expose the authoritarian government’s hypersensitivity to criticism. They reveal that Russia is neither ready nor willing to reckon with its Stalinist past.
The Ministry’s move serves as a reminder that satire is not harmless, that humor is a revolutionary act, and that Putin is right to fear it. After all, the rampant satire of the socialist system so undermined the legitimacy of Eastern Europe’s communist states that in the end, it was humor—as much as diplomacy—that brought down the Iron Curtain. In many ways, Soviet-era humor depended in large part upon the obvious absurdity of the ever-shifting communist orthodoxy. It is this inherent absurdity that Iannucci exploits to great effect (and greater hilarity) in The Death of Stalin. That the film should be met with such revulsion by one of the world’s foremost authoritarian states should generate a cheer from advocates of freedom and democracy worldwide. Václav Havel would be proud.
With The Death of Stalin, Armando Iannucci delivers an historical satire that is uproariously, at times wickedly, funny. The film manages to mock the absurdity of the communist system while leaving the audience with the firm conviction that the system itself— built upon horrific violence and suppression—is no laughing matter.
Written by Armando Iannucci and David Schneider, The Death of Stalin is based on a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. It stars Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov, Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov, Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria, Adrian McLoughlin as Joseph Stalin, Jason Isaacs as Field Marshal Zhukov, and Rupert Friend as Stalin’s son Vasily.