Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Death of Stalin

Armando Ianucci's new film, The Death of Stalin, is the blackest of black comedies. How else can one treat Stalin's era, and his henchmen? The Central Committee, seen first fawning over their leader's every word and tasteless joke at a compulsory dinner, must be circumspect when it's not clear whether the man will survive his cerebral hemorrhage - every word they utter will be recorded and remembered, and used against them. The team of doctors rounded up to examine him (all the good ones having been shot or sent to Siberia) consult, then make noncommittal assessments of his condition. Beria pulls one aside to ask whether Stalin will live or die. Blanching, the doctor whispers that he will die. But then the Great Man sits up and begins to speak and point, and Beria's threatening gaze falls on the luckless doctor, who falls back on "Sometimes..." Then Stalin does die, and Beria is as happy as a man can be.

The Committee must have a leader, and the Constitution elevates Deputy Secretary General Malenkov, a man whose spine is nowhere to be found. The group muddle their way through their first meeting with forced unanimity, but the cracks are already showing. Khrushchev's ambitions are clear, they all fear Beria - the butcher in charge of the secret police - and the rest of them aren't sure which horse to back. As these powerful men bicker, play practical jokes, and scheme behind each other's backs, the halls of power are laid bare in all their tawdry borrowed splendor. These are small men - by what obsequious machinations are they in charge?

One cannot help drawing a short straight line from Stalin through Beria to their eventual successor, Vladimir Putin. The exercise of power may be more sophisticated now, but for the average Russian the outcome is the same - cooperate or be exiled or executed. Likewise, the revolving doors of men in favor and out, bear a striking resemblance to those at the current White House, where the petty tyranny of whim and short attention span holds sway.

There was nothing funny about the Soviet leaders, as there's nothing amusing about the Kremlin's current occupant, nor his lapdog-in-chief in this country. But satire, the darkest shade of comedy, might be the only way to give them the critique they so deeply deserve: to be laughed at.