Hollywood does Stalin

The good news is that movie industry middleweights have made a movie about the terror that followed the death of Joseph Stalin. The horrors of communism of that era, including its aggressive use of the Communist Party USA and covert rings of agents, largely have been ignored by the culture-makers.

But the bad news seems to be that it is a comedy. Even worse, a slapstick comedy.

Now, I am ready to concede that genuine horror may be so awful that comedy is a legitimate way to approach the subject, so long as there is not sympathy for evil.  

The film's director, Armando Ianucci, is the creator of the popular TV series Veep and has a following.

Here is the trailer:

The cultural establishment is liing up in support, which is a cause for worry. Caryn James calls it “a dark comedy triumph” for the BBC.

Sam Adams, favorably reviewing the film in Slate, presents the film’s opening, which actually sounds promising.

Like the graphic novel on which it is based, The Death of Stalin opens with a sequence that combines comedy and terror. (Before the screening, Iannucci explained that he wanted the audience to laugh, but also to be “slightly nervous.”) Midway through a live concerto broadcast, a Moscow orchestra gets the call that Stalin himself would like a recording of the performance. Just one problem—no one was recording it. So the players must be held over and the concerto replayed, with audience members who'd already departed replaced by ragged peasants pulled in off the street so the hall's acoustics won't be changed. One of the frenzied broadcasters wonders aloud if such elaborate precautions are really necessary, but his colleague, mindful the studio may be bugged, nervously rebuts him: Of course Comrade Stalin, with his perfect ear—two of them, even—would notice the difference.

The comedy is tragic and terrible, or it would be if the movie gave us time to catch our breath.

The sequence is pure slapstick—one complication occurs when the panicked orchestra conductor accidentally knocks himself unconscious and has to be replaced—but it's undergirded by the notion that failure could mean the gulag, or death. (Iannucci underlines the threat by intercutting the orchestra hall with shots of Muscovites being pulled from their beds by the NKVD, presumably never to be seen again.) The movie, which Iannucci wrote with regular collaborators David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows, thrives on that back-and-forth, never leaning too hard into the atrocities committed under and after Stalin, but never letting us forget them, either. As part of that opening sequence, we see NKVD head Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) issuing lists of people to be executed, some in particularly gruesome and cruel ways, but there’s no menace in his voice; making sure a man sees his children killed before he is shot himself is simply all in a day’s work.

I am afraid that I am going to have to bestir myself and find a movie theatre in which to see this once it opens. I go to movies less than once a year on average.

The good news is that movie industry middleweights have made a movie about the terror that followed the death of Joseph Stalin. The horrors of communism of that era, including its aggressive use of the Communist Party USA and covert rings of agents, largely have been ignored by the culture-makers.

But the bad news seems to be that it is a comedy. Even worse, a slapstick comedy.

Now, I am ready to concede that genuine horror may be so awful that comedy is a legitimate way to approach the subject, so long as there is not sympathy for evil.  

The film's director, Armando Ianucci, is the creator of the popular TV series Veep and has a following.

Here is the trailer:

The cultural establishment is liing up in support, which is a cause for worry. Caryn James calls it “a dark comedy triumph” for the BBC.

Sam Adams, favorably reviewing the film in Slate, presents the film’s opening, which actually sounds promising.

Like the graphic novel on which it is based, The Death of Stalin opens with a sequence that combines comedy and terror. (Before the screening, Iannucci explained that he wanted the audience to laugh, but also to be “slightly nervous.”) Midway through a live concerto broadcast, a Moscow orchestra gets the call that Stalin himself would like a recording of the performance. Just one problem—no one was recording it. So the players must be held over and the concerto replayed, with audience members who'd already departed replaced by ragged peasants pulled in off the street so the hall's acoustics won't be changed. One of the frenzied broadcasters wonders aloud if such elaborate precautions are really necessary, but his colleague, mindful the studio may be bugged, nervously rebuts him: Of course Comrade Stalin, with his perfect ear—two of them, even—would notice the difference.

The comedy is tragic and terrible, or it would be if the movie gave us time to catch our breath.

The sequence is pure slapstick—one complication occurs when the panicked orchestra conductor accidentally knocks himself unconscious and has to be replaced—but it's undergirded by the notion that failure could mean the gulag, or death. (Iannucci underlines the threat by intercutting the orchestra hall with shots of Muscovites being pulled from their beds by the NKVD, presumably never to be seen again.) The movie, which Iannucci wrote with regular collaborators David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows, thrives on that back-and-forth, never leaning too hard into the atrocities committed under and after Stalin, but never letting us forget them, either. As part of that opening sequence, we see NKVD head Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) issuing lists of people to be executed, some in particularly gruesome and cruel ways, but there’s no menace in his voice; making sure a man sees his children killed before he is shot himself is simply all in a day’s work.

I am afraid that I am going to have to bestir myself and find a movie theatre in which to see this once it opens. I go to movies less than once a year on average.

RECENT VIDEOS