Armando Iannucci’s film The Death of Stalin (2017) graced The New York Times’ best-of-the-year list last December for good reason. It raised the question of how you treat comically a story of moral depravity on a vast scale. It reminded me of that daring venture, Roberto Benigni’s film La vita e bella (Life is Beautiful, 1997). How could a director make light of the Holocaust? Any such aesthetic enterprise must come with an ethical warning. Makers and critics alike are likely to feel vertigo at the inadequacy of language. Yet if you accept that classical tragedy, at least, is a matter of talking heads, whereas comedy focuses on the full-length man or woman then perhaps criticism can get a toehold on ventures like Benigni’s and Iannucci’s. They were different from each other, of course, and I’ll mostly be talking about Iannucci here.
We humans are all more vulnerable captured standing there with our physical affectations and defects. In a head-only shot we’re likely to be more dignified and give the impression of ethical reflectiveness, but in the taller view our drooping shoulders and receding chins, or our mounds of insentient blubber, spilling forth as fraught obscenities on lascivious lips, give us away. I’m thinking in the latter case of the magnificent actor Simon Russell Beale playing Beria in The Death of Stalin, and, as a study in weakness, Jeffrey Tambor playing fellow Politburo member Georgy Malenkov.
One way into the comedy of that savage Soviet situation may have been the idea of the puppet show: funny for children but menacing ever since Heinrich von Kleist wrote his famous essay on it in 1810. The Soviet system reduced men to puppets. Actually our present-day bureaucracies do much the same, if we’re not careful. Some of the funniest moments in Iannucci’s film substitute contemporary evasiveness, glib patter, scatological jokes and boardroom manipulation for whatever crude dialogue passed, in the year 1953, between bitter rivals.
The way Stalin’s henchmen change their loyalties and their views with diabolic lightness and grace is terribly well done by Ianucci. Michael Palin’s Vyacheslav Molotov is a half-brained zealot but also a leopard who can change his spots in an instant, while all the while presenting himself as a loving husband and an affable friend.We just have to laugh bitterly at the way human beings are.
La vita e bella took a different root to make us smile with tears in our eyes because it was from the most tender first-person point of view. It was about wanting to hide the most appalling cruelty and keep life magical for a young child. The Death of Stalin by contrast was a snapshot of an inhumane, decrepid, corrupt culture which was laughable from the start because it didn’t recognize itself. There were no mirrors in those grandiose Moscow palaces, only flags and portraits, gilded trinkets and hollow baubles. The self-aggrandizing propaganda was as ridiculous as it was obscene, drawing the eyes of the people and the apparatchiks themselves away from the basement cells where men were being tortured and shot and women and children raped. They knew what was happening but persuaded themselves it was normal life, and not even grim, just a jokey Soviet version of what Hannah Arendt meant by banal evil. Even half-knowledge, that sly creeping up of truth on bare flesh, like one of Dostoevsky’s insects, a token of all that is metaphysically abject, never really creeps up on them. That is the real content of Ianucci’s ‘comedy’, leaving us with a film that can’t be taken seriously enough.
I usually write about writers and artists who are no longer with us. I had to remind myself I could actually ask the very much still vital Ianucci a burning question, namely did some of his inspiration not come from a long article that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on March 4, 2016? One act of googling later, however, and I realised how difficult it is to get through to the stars. Celebrities might just as well be astral, for all that we can reach them. But seriously, Armando, if you ever get to read this, I can’t see how Sheila Fitzpatrick’s On Stalin’s Team (Princeton, NJ, 2015) and Rosemary Sullivan’s Stalin’s Daughter The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva (4th Estate, 2015), as reviewed by Rachel Polonsky, cannot have given you the idea. Polonsky quotes Fitzpatrick as saying that ‘there was a book to write about Soviet high politics that put political science models aside and focused on individuals and their interactions.’ Here directly was the full-length, character-driven approach being recommended to the dramatist, who would know he could use his material in quite a different way from the historian. Fitzpatrick by the way, for so long regarded as a maverick by historians of Russia, is but now justly admired for having a rare capacity to get to the heart of the matter.
,Just one more quote from Polonsky on Fitzpatrick’s method then: ‘She traces the co-operation over three decades of the more or less constant group of men around Stalin…together they collectivized Soviet agriculture, purged the Bolshevik Party, unleashed mass terror on whole sections of the population (including their own friends and family members…For years their family and social lives were intertwined in Kremlin apartments and bucolic dachas outside Moscow; they danced, played and drank together in ritual occasions that became ever more grotesque as Stalin’s loneliness and paranoia intensified…’ I don’t know whether that would work as the legendary one-sentence pitch to a Hollywood mogul or a global publisher. But what an opening for a master dramatist on screen!
I watched the film again recently, in a nod to the NYT’s choice, and I loved the way it played up the Soviet Union’s rivalry with a 1930s United States of mobsters and gangsters. The accents were all the better for being more New York than Russian, with the exception of the anglophone Beale, like mid-century British novelist Anthony Powell’s odious Widmerpool in Dance to the Music of Time, but reinvented in the Kremlin. The episode around Stalin’s sudden death and the fight to be his successor is framed both ends with a Mozart recital by the pianist Maria Yudina. It’s a brilliant device. It reminds us of the pathos of Russian cultural highmindedness, as the beauty of classical music is celebrated against a background of routine state-sponsored carnage. For me it was a moment to both laugh and cry when the concert organizers had to resort to a little – fortunately harmless – coercion themselves to satisfy a whim of Stalin’s. The essence of Russian culture is tragicomic. At a key point in the film the ‘Russian People’, at first held back from their great surge towards Moscow to mourn their dead leader, and then allowed, chaotically, to board trains, give Iannucci the chance to direct his own answer to Eisenstein’s October. The viewer registers a surge in the director’s heart-felt affection for the afflicted, childlike millions waving their red flags, the passion and the incoherence of it all, except as food for art.
I gulped at the wit of men used to guarding their speech against being overheard. This from a scene in the basement of Lubyanka prison: ‘Don’t worry about him. His ears are full of blood anyway.’ As ever more names are chosen for execution an alternative title might have been ‘New Lists- The Horror Movie’. When Red Army leader Marshal Zhukov (‘I fucked Hitler, I can fuck anyone’) appears half-way through as a Superman American comic book hero on the half-way decent, reformist Khrushchev’s side it’s a gorgeous moment. When Beria becomes ‘the pig for the pot’ it’s a moment of visceral satisfaction, though you have to wonder at the way his lately greedy flesh is rendered and the charred remains are shovelled into a truck.
The aesthetics of angels mixed with the pyjama-clad slapstick that Beale and Palin, and Steve Buscemi as as Khrushchev, and Jason Isaacs’ medal-breasted Zhukov, play so brilliantly are the heart of this comedy. But it is of course also the story of the tragedy of a nation. A tragic figure is certainly Andrea Riseborough’s Svetlana, daughter of the late man of steel. She’s like a mythical heroine lost in a maze of butchered feelings and suppressed fear but, in a modern touch, trying to appear sophisticated, grown-up and equal to the political deviants all around her. No surprise then that The Death of Stalin was banned from being shown in present-day Russia, a country that still doesn’t dare properly look itself in the mirror.