The Death of Stalin

It was promoted as a comedy.

That reminds me of a joke I heard years ago.

Stalin is addressing the Supreme Soviet, speaking and suddenly: a sneeze is heard.

Stalin stops speaking, and asks sternly “who snyeeezed?” (my friend who told the joke was trying to say the word with a Russian accent. Would Stalin have spoken with an accent? but never mind.)

Dead silence. Nobody dares answer!

Stalin gestures silently. Soldiers come, hustle everyone in the front row out of the theatre, and out they go at a dead run.

The door closes, and then Stalin resumes speaking, but partway through we hear from outside “rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat” of machine guns mowing them down.

Stalin stops speaking, and makes a stern face. “Alright. Who snyeeeeezed?!”

Dead silence. Nobody dares answer!

Stalin gestures silently. Soldiers come, hustle everyone in the second row out of the theatre, and out they go at a dead run.

The door closes, and then Stalin resumes speaking, but partway through we hear from outside “rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat” of machine guns, mowing them down.

Stalin stops speaking, and makes a stern face. “Okay?? So….Who SNYEEEEZED?!”

There’s dead silence…. But a hand is raised, shaking. And a thin voice is heard.

“It-it-it was I, C-c-comrade Stalin. I sneezed!”

To which Stalin responds. “Aha…! Gesundheit!”

I tell the joke because the whole movie reminds me of the same bizarre idea, that amid terror and death, humour is not just possible but necessary. Stalin was arguably the scariest tyrant of all. Hitler? no match for Stalin. Mao might have been responsible for comparable atrocities but I don’t think we know as much about him and his murderous ways.

When Stalin died, it may have been a cause for rejoicing in some quarters, but to many he was still a hero, the leader of the USSR during the great war with Germany. Even typing that much I am amazed that anyone could have admired him, a leader who was so paranoid, so intent on clinging to power that he arranged to have many of his best officers killed, purges and murders of thousands upon thousands, deportations to Siberia and a whole culture of distrust & murder. But of course history gives us a different perspective.

As I watched Armando Iannucci’s film The Death of Stalin (2017), I was astonished at the resonances with the current situation in the USA:

  • the hypocrisy of the leadership
  • the cognitive dissonance between assertions / propaganda and actual events
  • the fluidity of truth, to the point that it becomes hard or even impossible to discern what is true and what is not true in a web of competing lies

But I didn’t laugh very much, any more than I laugh watching CNN. Yet I felt a huge catharsis all the same.

The music for this film is one of its strengths. I googled to find out more, reading  commentary from director Iannucci and the composer Christopher Willis. I wondered at parts of the score that reminded me of Shostakovich: and discovered that Willis had been instructed by Ianucci to write faux Shostakovich for his film. How perfect, to employ sounds suggestive of the composer who was in a real sense the voice of his country, suppressed by Stalin.

The comedy is dark indeed, with a higher body count than anything from Tarentino. Two talents I’ve known from comedy have shed their skins in new roles, namely Steve Buscemi as Khruschev and Michael Palin as Molotov. Why am I surprised, after so many comedians reinvented themselves in drama?

I’m not sure why I felt such satisfaction.

  • Because it scratched my political itch? I’m eager to see Michael Moore’s latest for example, insatiable for political content, especially if it portends positive change rather than a further slide into chaos & despair. The death of someone like Stalin is a good thing even if there was lots of tyranny to follow.
  • Because of the deft rendering of the period, complete with a satirical edge?

Or maybe it’s simply because I could escape for awhile, forgetting our troubles while watching the troubles of other people.

I’ll watch it again this weekend.  I wonder if I’ll laugh this time?

This entry was posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Music and musicology, Politics, Popular music & culture, Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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