“The Death of Stalin” Portrays Dictatorship in Comedic Light
Issue   |   Tue, 04/17/2018 - 21:36

“The Death of Stalin” imagines the brief period in Soviet history between the rule of Stalin and his formal denunciation. It asks the creative questions only comedy can: what if Stalin soiled himself before bursting some artery and dying a slow, solitary death?

The scene that follows his passing ranks as one of the film’s most hilarious — and its most foreboding. Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), along with other movers and shakers of the Soviet Union, gawk helplessly at Stalin’s wet pants, as they speculate how they can place their king on his king-sized bed. The polite elephant in the room is that no one wants to hold Stalin’s legs, because the urine might drip down the pants, past their arms and spoil their suits. But as the most powerful dictator in history, even Stalin’s body demands obedience. They organize a haphazard formation: in the bedroom, they carry the body to the bed, and in the boardroom, they carry the body off the throne and contemplate succession. In public, each bumbling dignitary competes to match the entire nation in mourning; all the while, they worry about distancing themselves from Stalin’s crimes, left without the perpetrator’s power to suppress public consciousness.

Needless to say, director Arnando Iannucci’s latest film finds tremendous power in its premise alone, but reports of its political timeliness appear to be greatly exaggerated or outright misjudged. It is easy to overlap Stalin and Trump; at least, many progressive Americans would like to imagine Trump soiling himself or at least suffering a lethal cardiac arrest. But subscribers to this line of thinking must harken back to another cultural event, this one in theater. Not too long ago, Shakespeare in the Park, a troupe that vivifies the bard in public spaces, staged a production of “Julius Caesar” that drew explicit parallels between the curtain-caller of the Roman republic and the current President of the United States, through an astute (if blatant) use of fashionable suits and unfashionable hair products. This outraged much of the political right and pleased some on the left, the latter for questionable reasons, perhaps. “Julius Caesar” meditates on the chaos swirling in the void of absolute power. In this void, national sentiments unchained from the familiar binds of leadership fall into populism’s sway. In turn, this populism inaugurates the next generation of authoritarians. It is less a Trump play, than a post-Trump play, one that realizes dictatorship is so much bigger than the dictator and casts deep aspirations on the ability of people to meaningfully transform their political environment.

“The Death of Stalin” has much in common with “Julius Caesar” and imparts, past its admittedly funny toilet humor, a graver relevance. Like the historical play, the film thinks about the future. Stalin’s death summons the absolute worst in his men, and we come to suspect how effective his cult of personality was.

In one particularly funny scene, Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) preemptively denounces the false crimes of his thought-to-be-dead wife in front of Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), chief of the secret police. But, it is revealed that Beria came to inform Molotov of his wife’s survival and subsequent liberation. When the woman timidly walks in, Molotov embraces her and declares how his faith had not once wavered. This scene diffuses the tension, but it also diffuses the illusion that Stalin was invulnerable. Stalin is dead, Beria repeats throughout the film.

Jokes in the film often rely on the character’s presumption of the Stalinist status quo, only to realize that the times have changed, and individuals have more power than realized. In turn, the Stalinist status quo is revealed as what it is — a joke. That power materializes in the boardrooms as the capacity to change the nation. However, that joke of having more individual power loses its laugh and becomes Soviet business as usual, i.e. serious business. As the world of the film relapses into selfsame oppressions, one realizes what powered the cult of personality was not the personality but the structure of the political cult, since even after the death of Stalin, people continue to die.

Steve Buscemi’s Khrushchev speaks in a Brooklyn accent. It is a feature than best captures the cynicism of the film. Every time Khrushchev speaks (which is both often and entertaining), we hear Brooklyn, the United States and the present. “The Death of Stalin” has little care for the representation of historical fact. It is a comedy of deadly errors that revels in its unfortunately timeless pliability. As much as it is Shakespearean, it is equally like a Coen brothers film, replete with a skilled mixture of light and dark and jarring lurches from the former to the latter. The final stretch of the film concentrates the aforementioned serious business, political machinations that upended the person and preserved the structure. It hacks apart the myth of liberalization following the death of Stalin, tracing the survival of Stalinism itself. Bringing it all back home, the film, a work of historical fiction, counsels American liberals to historicize the moment of political anger, to find fault not in personality but in institutions, to find parallels not in character but in theme, however interesting the sight of excrement running down the length of Mike Pence’s arm might be.