“The Death of Stalin,” by director Amando Iannuci, released in Europe last year and set to appear in America in March, has been billed a political satire. But try as they might, the film-makers fail to achieve any laughter due to its macabre subject matter: the feeding frenzy among Stalin’s inner circle upon his death to take over while his corpse was still warm.
But there is a history of attempting to laugh at Stalin, both affectionately and mockingly. Before discussing Iannuci’s film, a history lesson is in order.
When Charlie Chaplin learned about the Holocaust he instantly regretted his portrayal of Hitler as a pratt-falling clown in the film “The Great Dictator” (1940).
And yet despite enormity of Stalin’s mass murders, confirmed by none other than his successor Nikita Khrushchev in 1956, film-makers attempted to find satire about the dictator who murdered more people than Hitler — 20 million (at last count) to the Holocaust’s 6 million.
But before such numbers were known it was still possible to mock Communism as menacing, yes, but also joyless and simply no damn fun. The best film in this regard was the Great Garbo vehicle, “Ninotchka” (1939). Garbo portrayed an iron Bolshevik who succumbed to the comforts of capitalism and the charm of a White Russian playboy (Melvyn Douglas). Douglas scored the best points, in one instance informing Garbo that he had been a fan of the “Five Year Plan for the last ten years.”
Even then there lurked sinister matters underneath the comedy. Garbo mistook a Nazi saluting another at the train station for one of her fellow Bolsheviks (a nod to the current military partnership between Hitler and Stalin). A note of creepiness occurred when she bragged of the Purge Trials: “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”
These sinister moments were even more apparent in the Judy Davis vehicle “Children of the Revolution” (1999).
The film, dealing with Davis’ diehard Stalinism, expressed in a ferocious bout of lovemaking with her idol that killed Stalin, did have its comedic moments. To Davis’ shock, Stalin’s inner circle, upon learning of his death, popped champagne corks. But the film could not sustain such moments. Stalin and Davis’ son soon followed in dad’s footsteps, becoming first a ruthless police officer and then assuming a dictatorial role of a police union.
The filmmakers clearly were anti-Stalinist, refusing to believe in the Marxist notion that the capitalist superstructure caused Stalin’s villainy. In an effective moment where the son talked to his ghostly father, Stalin informed his offspring that perhaps, “I was born this way.”
At first glance, “The Death of Stalin” would appear to be in this vein. After all, Putin, who routinely praises Stalin, has banned the film, treating it, as he does all matters Western, as some type of CIA plot to sow discord in this country. The film’s most political point, whether intentional or not, is how, evidenced by the power-hungry struggle between Stalin’s confederates, the Soviet government was hardly about ideals.
But Iannuci doesn’t know when to quit; when to realize that there is nothing funny about this material. He tries a “House of Cards” type treatment of the schemes and double and triple-crosses without realizing that these antics in Western governments lack the lethal consequences of such acts.
He does catch the relatively “liberal” nature of Khrushchev, who was instrumental in getting political prisoners released from Stalin’s Gulags. But that is the most attention Iannuci affords Stalin’s victims. Admittedly, his focus is on the jockeying for power among the beyond-creepy inner circle, but without the context of Stalin’s mass arrests and executions the viewer doesn’t know what is at stake if the pro-Stalinist Beria and Molotov (the latter’s wife had been in the Gulag for over a decade) assume power.
Nor does he capture surreal moments such as the populace weeping uncontrollably about the death of a dictator who had imprisoned in the Gulag or had executed many of their friends and relatives. Such attention would have yielded much in the “Stockholm Syndrome” nature of the populace.
Today this same generation, and their children (but alas for them, not their grandchildren), pine for the “stability” and “prestige” Stalin gave them; this is especially acute in a Russia they regard as overrun with “gangsters” and “oligarchs” (they don’t or refuse to acknowledge that much of these changes were overseen by their beloved Putin).
Once upon a time, Martin Amis, a skilled satirist, traced the origins of his devastating attack on Stalin and the Western intellectuals who defended him, “Koba the Dread: Laughter and The 20 Million,” in the reaction to a speech made by his best friend, Christopher Hitchens. Before an audience of Old Leftists, Hitchens reminded them of how they once defended Stalin. To Amis’ shock, the crowd expressed some affectionate laughter.
In his attack on them, and others who defended Stalin, Amis convincingly showed how a comedic approach was impossible with the 20 million staring them in the face. Still, the attempts to mine comedy out of the “evil empire” continue, and inadvertently Iannuci shows how Stalinism was and is literally dead serious.