Movie Review: “The Death of Stalin”

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I suppose it is worth stating anew the observation and fact that few–if any–movies actually tell a historical tale in what can be called a faithful manner. Such is the case with The Death of Stalin, which, while unfaithful to historical facts, shows laudable fidelity to stating and underlining a higher truth: The so-called “leaders” of authoritarian and totalitarian societies are as comical, ridiculous and pathetic as they are monstrous, evil and depraved, and to defeat them, it is imperative that we identify them as the buffoons that they are, and mock them accordingly–even as we gape in horror at their crimes.

Almost no one in The Death of Stalin comes off well, and that is as it should be. Stalin himself is portrayed as a villainous and capricious lowlife; one who believed that an entire nation should be made to cater to his whims. His ideas were absurd, the demands that he placed on others were fantastical and ridiculous, and the price that would be paid for not meeting those demands would be death itself. Even when one eliminates the threat of death as a response to any act of civil disobedience in our own country, one can readily identify what is, at the very least, a quasi-Stalinesque imbecile looming over the rest of us, intent on making society dance to his deranged tune. I would ask what it might be like if Stalin had access to 21st century social media instruments with which to hold a population in thrall, but I think we all have a running head start on divining the answer, do we not?

Equally contemptible were all of the people who debased themselves to be in Stalin’s good graces. To be sure, it was either that, or death, but that doesn’t change the fact that depressingly many of the best lacked all conviction, while an appreciable number of the worst were filled with passionate intensity. (Plus ça change, etc.) As such, Soviet society is portrayed as featuring encores of entire concerts simply because the Lesser Great Man decided that he wanted a recording of the concert. Grown men are shown debating whether Stalin wanted a call 17 minutes from the time that he demanded it, or from the time that the original call had ended, and these debates were, quite literally, life-and-death affairs. A misheard number in the course of taking down telephone contact information led to one’s own continued existence possibly being in peril. All pitiful and horrifying at the same time, and all the consequence of there being no restraints whatsoever on a man-child having been granted political power.

The politicians surrounding Stalin are portrayed as being no better than the Lesser Great Man himself. Nikita Khruschev, who is seen as the sanest of the bunch, obsessively scribbles down jokes with the help of his wife to ensure that Stalin is kept in good humor. Malenkov is a quivering mess who is actually dumb enough to ask “whatever happened to [INSERT NAME OF ENEMY OF THE STATE STALIN HAD KILLED HERE],” leading to the embarrassment and mortification of the collective who hear his clumsy utterances. Beria is noxious and repulsive in the extreme; like another contemporary politician who was more successful when it came to seizing political power, it was a pity that Beria was ever born. Molotov is an utter coward who continues to denounce his wife even after she is rehabilitated by Beria, and–more importantly–even after Stalin is dead and cold. (I suppose it is relatively easy for others to gaslight us when we are so keen on gaslighting ourselves.) And Stalin’s children, Svetlana and Vasily, don’t quite seem to understand that in the aftermath of their father’s death, the Soviet Union–and the world–cannot wait to pass them by. Unqualified, untalented, unjustly entitled little brats everywhere–but especially in New York City and Washington, DC, to name a couple of random geographical locations–might want to take note.

It is fitting that in the aftermath of Stalin’s death, he is portrayed as having pissed himself; an involuntary, biological, covfefe emission, as it were. It is equally fitting that his pathetic lackeys are seen as pretending to be devastated by his death, while clearly not wanting to revive him. (A cerebral hemorrhage is a suitably painful way for a monster to go, assuming that there is anything “cerebral” about the monster in question to begin with–what is the sound of one hand clapping and what is the mortality rate for cerebral hemorrhages that occur in the defiantly and spectacularly non-cerebral?) No one cares about Stalin; he is just a means to an end for almost-as-evil contemporaries of his in the Soviet leadership class. No one genuinely mourns his demise; planning the funeral itself is seen as a chore–one that Khruschev, who is ultimately tasked with the responsibility of choreographing society’s farewell to Stalin, does not even want. The only thing that the people around Stalin want is Stalin’s power. Left unsaid is whether they also want tax cuts and the appointment of Comrade Neilya McGillovich Gorsuchkin to something resembling a prominent judicial post in exchange for meekly accepting the infliction of one outrage after another on an entire nation, but one can make reasonable guesses as to what the wants and desires of the inner circle of a modern-day Stalinette might be on this score.

It is only proper that Armando Ianucci was placed in charge of preparing this excellent film for the rest of us. The creator of Veep is a master of satire, and also a master of settling the debate “which TV show better portrays our politics; The West Wing, or House of Cards?” (Answer: None of the above–it’s Veep.) I am too lazy to fetch the book and quote the exact passage, but in The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed, former director of the Office of Management and Budget David Stockman recalls the first time that he met Reagan’s political inner circle, when Stockman was getting ready to portray his old boss, Congressman John Anderson, in a mock debate with Reagan. The Reaganites struck Stockman as so . . . ordinary, that he wrote in his book that although one always expected the people at the next level of politics to be supermen, few actually were. Veep captures this observation and runs with it. The result is laughs and enlightenment, which also come about as a result of seeing The Death of Stalin.

Stockman’s expectations did not attend, and should never have attended the motley group of hacks, morons and miserable human-resembling-things who made up Stalin’s inner circle. Similarly, no one should expect much from the motley group of hacks, morons and miserable human-resembling-things who would have us believe that they are MAGA-ing their way to glorious footnotes in the pages of history. Earlier, I wrote that “[a]lmost no one in The Death of Stalin comes off well” in the movie. One who does–at least when compared to others–is the pianist Maria Yudina, who initially refuses to repeat an entire concert simply so that Stalin can have a recording of it, and extorts a 20,000 ruble price before she changes her mind (all hail the curative and anti-tyrannical properties of capitalism). Yudina is also seen as having written a note that might have caused Stalin to be afflicted with the cerebral hemorrhage that eventually killed him.

A pity that Maria Yudina is no longer with us. By all accounts, she was a marvelous pianist. And I bet that she would have been a beast if given access to a Twitter account.

(Photo Credit.)

(Cross-posted.)