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.