What is the difference, if any, between laughing at the absurd death of a dictator who killed around 60 million people, and laughing at one who killed anywhere from 9 to 50 million people? The numbers are impossible to verify, the suffering is impossible to quantify, but yet one is decidedly easier to laugh at than the other. From The Great Dictator (1940), through springtime to Tarantino’s Basterds (2009), I have had little self-reflection about separating laughter and sorrow at the events. In fact countless comedies are set within the horrific events of WW2, one even inside a concentration camp.
There are not as many mainstream comedies set in Stalin’s Russia, despite the fact that many non-Russian film-makers love to interpret Russian life, music and literature for their own audiences. We have countless western versions of War & Peace, to name just one. What makes one dictator more meme-friendly than another? Not a question I can answer here, but it’s an interesting thought that The Death of Stalin (2018) put in my head. There is no Stalinesque equivalent of Hitler reacting to his xbox account getting suspended. There is no Stalin singing “I’m so ronry” in puppet form. Yet, you have to admit he has the numbers too, as Eddie Izzard once noted.
You may feel all of these examples are in poor taste, and shouldn’t be laughed at. But I have, without much thought as to why I felt that’s ok. So this review of The Death of Stalin (2018) is going to be part review and part me figuring out why it’s uncomfortable even as I roll with laughter.
The Death of Stalin follows the process of filling the power-gap left by Stalin himself. The dictator is found in a “puddle of indignity” and dies soon after. The shimmying into position begins immediately. In an absurd scene, the most powerful men in the Soviet Union run through the forest like eager children, crying out greetings, as they desperately attempt to reach Stalin’s daughter and curry her favour first. Mostly the death of a dictator means the same as at any one’s death: planning the funeral, finding an heir, and swapping out the kill lists.
Seeing the men responsible for countless liquidations, torture, and the implementation of a ruthless dictator’s policy, act like frat boys is funny. It would not be as funny if great actors didn’t fill every role. They all speak with (mostly) their own accents, creating great contrasts between their characters. Michael Palin stutters his condemnation of whoever is out of favour at the moment. Steve Buscemi makes Khrushchev into a very American politician, a fixer who will use a soft touch for as long as is useful. Simon Russell Beale plays the chief of the secret police, Beria. His posher sounding British makes him a good foil for Buscemi’s Khrushchev.
The accents and the fact that it is impossible to not think of the actors behind the roles, creates the feeling of caricature. I don’t know enough about the real history to say how well their personalities are captured, but the distance creates another nagging question that fuels the uncomfortable laughter: is it right that these men should be portrayed as pathetic power-hungry man-children? Even the most competent and ruthless, Beria, is foiled by his own childish tantrum in the end. This could be said for any Hitler joke. There is no difference, logically, but not emotionally.
Beria’s death in particular seems like it is asking just that question: what have you been laughing at? The scene was shocking and graphic. It still manages to get a laugh in, perhaps undercutting any real question. The film ends with the classic still image with text over to explain their fates, twisting the old trope into a world of absurd yet deadly politics.
The cinematography, until Beria’s death, shies away from any real gore. During scenes of people being rounded up, or walking through Beria’s jail, the camera follows the actors lightly, like a journalist desperate to get a statement before the accused disappear into the courthouse. People are shot, arrested, tortured and sent to their deaths in passing or in the background, or at a distance. Some of them are simply punchlines: as an entire building full of people are being arrested, to either be executed or sent to the Gulag, one man opens the door, terrified of what awaits him. Surprise! He is just needed to conduct a concerto. The audience (me included) laughed as people were led to their horrific fates around the befuddled conductor.
I am not saying the victims of Stalin’s rule are made into a punch line, nor that the jokes are offensive to me. The film is hilarious. But unlike a nazi-films of the same type, perhaps the source of my discomfort is rather due to the lack of a Russian telling of these times. If you could point me in the direction of a widely distributed Russian-made film with mainstream appeal that deals with the hard truths of the Stalin era, maybe I could process the humour that results from this tragedy. Comedy is tragedy plus time after all, so maybe we need more screen-time for this era, or at least, something real and true before we can laugh at it.
The Death of Stalin is a funny, well-made romp about horrible people. These very famous actors have a lot of fun, creating something that feels both like a satire and a peak into the ultimate bureaucracy, and what the people are like at the top when their dictator dies unexpectedly. The pacing makes it a gripping story even as you’re vaguely aware thanks to high school history of how it all ends. I can’t help but wonder how long we’ll have to wait to get a comedic take on Pol Pot. What makes a dictator comedy-worthy? I still don’t know.
Dice roll: 5