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“And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee”
Meditation 17, John Donne

It is a truism that movie sci-fi and historical fiction are distorting mirrors that protect us from our current realities, and allow us a more unthreatening way of thinking about them. Through these genres, our worst fears are distanced into a past now extinct, or projected into a future that need not ever be. Better yet, movies can give the past and/or the future a satiric twist. More distance. Less threat. Much less pain. You can’t get a better deflector for these dark days in the United States than a serio-comic farce set in the now defunct Soviet Union in 1953, as the mammoth country was given an opportunity to emerge from the rigid structure of Stalin’s tyranny. The Death of Stalin (2017) directed by political satirist Armando Ianucci is such film, a comic tour de force about the anarchy hidden within despotism. Reducing giants from Communist history to petty, bumbling, and/or bombastic fools, and the tragedies that were daily occurrences in the Soviet Union to background noise, it scoops up its audience to tread dexterously on a high wire above our current, raging anxieties about the toxic cult of personality poisoning the United States today.

In a perfect farcical fusion of pain and laughter, The Death Of Stalin presents us with images of the men who held the highest positions in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin as they absurdly perform all kinds of physical and verbal contortions not only to curry favor with the dictator, but also, once he is dead, to curry favor with anyone because the habit of mindless kowtowing is so deeply ingrained. (Paging Jeff Flake and Bob Corker!) At the same time innocent people are being rounded up, tortured, and killed as nothing more than offstage noise for these grotesque, but very funny performances. The radical contrasts keep us both painfully aware and laughingly safe, except during one incident near the end of the film when one member of the Central Committee is suddenly ambushed and slated for execution by his “friends” as the final solution to the discord among the members of the Central Committee. They use him as a scapegoat in order to secure their positions in the Post-Stalin Soviet Union. This cold bath of unmediated horror changes the film’s tone briefly. The protective glasses of wit and humor are soon restored, but, having been exposed directly to the wages of tyranny, we are more aware than ever of the dark subtext of this political theatre of the absurd. More of that below.

The tone is set by a Monty Python-like moment as the film opens at an elegant concert hall in Moscow. While beautiful, accomplished pianist Maria Veniaminova Yudina (Olga Krylenko) is playing a Mozart concerto for an upscale Russian audience, Andreyev (Paddy Considine), the supervising bureaucrat, receives a telephone call from someone at the General Secretariat who gives him a phone number. He is to call back in 17 minutes. Since this call is clearly from Stalin’s office, the normally composed Andreyev instantly begins to dither. His dour assistant Sergei (Tom Brooke) distracts him briefly with his musings about what it means to call in 17 minutes. “17 minutes from when you picked up the phone? Or 17 minutes from when you put it down?” Andreyev can only sputter, “17 minutes from when I said I’d call back in 17 minutes…..When was that?” The speculation goes on giddily for a while.

The fact that they are speaking in vaudevillian British accents turns the (actually serious) hysteria about trivia when dealing with a dictator into a music hall routine. When Andreyev subsequently speaks to Stalin—in 17 minutes?–”Our Leader” demands to be given the recording of Maria Yudina’s performance of the concerto. Well, there is no recording, but there is, of course, no use in letting Stalin know that he is asking the impossible, and a messenger is on the way. The clock ticking, Andreyev orders that the concert be repeated and recorded immediately. Alas, most of the audience has already left and and there need to be more hands to record more applause. Any port in a storm. Confused street people outside the hall are hurriedly dragooned to fill the empty seats. Things seem to be at the ready, when the conductor who has just finished the concert collapses. Maybe he’s dead. But who cares? All that concerns everyone is getting the recording made.

However, the film positions us to see a big world out there beyond Andreyev’s concerns. As a posse of NKVD officers drag the nearest conductor, Boris Bresnavitch (Nicholas Woodeson) out of his bed with no time to change out of his pajamas and robe, others, simultaneously, on the instructions of Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), head of the NKVD, a menacing Dick Cheney clone, are arresting and executing numerous people who are on the “enemies list.” Of course, as he hears his neighbors being violently rounded up, Bresnavitch thinks he is being taken away to die. At the same time, miles away, Stalin is forcing his inner circle, Beria, Nikita Kruschev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) to sit through a screening of John Ford’s Stagecoach. Why? Reasons. All the performances are little comic gems, but Buscemi merits special mention as the sole stooge who possesses a sense of his own absurdity. And we are caught between laughter and horror.

The icing on the cake is that Maria Yudina, consumed by rage at Stalin for what he did to her family, contrives to stick inside the envelope containing the hastily made recording a note damning him in no uncertain terms, try as Andreyev does to prevent her. As Stalin later reads her screed, he laughs uproariously then goes into convulsions and falls to floor. The two soldiers outside his study hear the thud, but don’t go in to check because they don’t have permission. As a result, when Stalin is finally discovered by the woman who brings in his breakfast, he is almost dead. Almost. A period of indeterminacy follows, the worst possible situation in a country in which the greatest sin is disobedience. Beria, Krushchev, Malenkov, and Molotov don’t know whether to compete with each other for Stalin’s position or to impress everyone with their faultless loyalty to the dictator, in case he recovers. So they do both, by turns, often in the same sentence.

After Stalin dies, the madness only increases. Lazar Kaganovich, Minister of labor (Dermot Crowley) Anastas Mikoyan, Minister for Trade (Paul Whitehouse), and Nicolai Bulganin, Minister for Science (Paul Chahidi), join the uproarious fight club engaged in the (awkward, spastic) jockeying for who will fill the vacuum, as the constant parade of random murders continues. The list of the people once condemned to death changes and there is sudden resurrection of former colleagues who had been entombed in prison. They are still singing the praises of the man who destroyed their lives, as do the parade of victims being shot against various walls. Compounding the chaos, enter the elaborately be-medaled Field Marshall Zhukov, head of the Red Army (Jason Isaacs, giving a bravura, dashing performance as the only power player with utter and complete contempt for the sniveling pettiness of Stalin’s flunkeys). Zhukov means to engage Beria and his NKVD in a contest for military supremacy. Stalin’s funeral turns into a ludicrous non-stop jockeying for power, and the dead tyrant’s neurotic daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and his dissolute, moronic son Vasily (Rupert Friend) become the spoils of war for the Ministers as token of victory or defeat in their political intrigues. We are never far from either despair or hilarity.

When the internecine struggles degenerate to the level of The Lord of the Flies, albeit in burlesque drag, the mask of comedy is suddenly torn off the murderousness in the film’s subtext. Beria, not only the vicious manager of the secret police, but also a sexual predator targeting children as young as 7, is made the scapegoat who unites the combatants around Malenkov as the new General Secretary of the Party. Beria is given a 5 minute pseudo-trial. The combined charge and verdict is read while his former friends are literally preparing him for a horrific death, to which we are witnesses. Uniquely in this film, this comprises a genuinely unleavened and chilling moment, as the most horrible among the Ministers gets his due punishment. The satisfactions of seeing the awful Beria destroyed are tainted, however, by an obvious continuity with Stalin’s barbarities; his death does not substantially address the terrorism the soviet Union has been subjected to. Only the players have changed. The final moments of the film further emphasize the instability of a government motivated by personal ambition and vengeance rather than the rule of law and ideals of justice, by calling our attention, through subtitles, to the fleeting nature of the regimes that succeeded Stalin and implying the betrayals involved.

Indeed it is not only regimes that are unstable; volatility and deception characterize most of the relationships in the film. Promises made are just so much meaningless badinage as realities change with shifting political alliances. Neurotic Svetlana is justified in her outbursts of suspicion and paranoia as she and her brother become less and less important when new power players ascend. By the end of the film, Kruschev’s earlier promises that no harm will come to her and her brother are much altered by circumstances. She is being exiled to Vienna, and Vassily seems headed toward the untender mercies of a Soviet mental hospital. As Svetlana sputters her protest, not yet used to her new identity as an unperson, Kruschev warns her that she had better go quietly, speaking the most telling line in the film when he tells her “This is how people get killed when their stories don’t fit.”

Kruschev’s fictional words resonate with our real experience of the Trump administration’s complete obliviousness to reality and projects the destiny of the United States should Trump and/or Trumpism prevail. If there are those who object to laughing at such a dire situation—and some people seem to feel that comedy is inappropriate in the face of evil—I would reply that comedy and laughter may be the most effective way of dealing with the paralysis that evil can inflict. It may also be the most effective way of allowing us to avoid projecting evil away from us and onto Others. With that in mind, I would like to bring into this conversation a much less sophisticated, humorless use of the past to talk about the present, the television series The Americans, which, set during the Reagan era, is about two Russian-born moles in deep cover as affable suburban parents by day and astonishingly violent enemy agents by night. The series too uses Russia as a foil and is about stories that do and don’t fit, and despotism. But its deadly serious narrative is toxic. It is pure disavowal, reassuring us that we aren’t anything like those despicable Russians. The adventures of the moles keep iterating that Americans are, for the most part, innocent of the obvious deviousness and dehumanization of the intruders. By contrast, the comedy of The Death of Stalin encourages flexibility and a sense of universal political ironies and ambiguities.

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