Saturday, March 31, 2018

On the Big Screen: THE DEATH OF STALIN (2017)

Russia banned Armando Iannucci's burlesque of Soviet history shortly before its scheduled release in the former U.S.S.R. The country's culture ministry describes it as an incitement to ethnic hatred and an insult to those who lived through the Soviet Union and apparently liked it. The Russians protest that Ianucci and his co-writers, adapting a French graphic novel, sought to brainwash moviegoers so that "the thought of the 1950s Soviet Union [would make] people feel only terror and disgust." A westerner's inevitable rejoinder might be, "what else was there to feel?" but we should never underestimate the persistence and virulence of "my country right or wrong" thinking anywhere, or the legitimate pride Soviet citizens may have felt or still feel about the nation's technological achievements, particularly in space exploration. Also, to the extent that Russia was a different culture before Stalinism arguably warped it further, patriotic Russians today, from the president on down, may simply disagree with the admittedly reflexive western assessment that Stalinist terror -- the killing of actual and (mostly) suspected political enemies -- disqualifies Josef Stalin's every other achievement, from the decisive battles against Nazi Germany to ... well, whatever Russians think he achieved. The irony of Russian outrage, no doubt exacerbated by their resentment of the persistent vilification of their country since the ascent of Vladimir Putin, is that The Death of Stalin may well offend people who have the polar opposite view of Stalin and his collaborators. Iannucci's burlesque treatment of the power struggle following the tyrant's demise will no doubt appear to trivialize the cruelty of Stalin's despotism by making it an occasion for black comedy.

Imagine the Coen brothers (or Martin Scorsese in comic mood) directing the Three Stooges in one of those wartime propaganda pictures in which Moe Howard played Hitler and you'll get close to the flavor of this film. Stalin's inner circle are portrayed as thuggish clowns -- which probably is unfair, to the extent to which they were committed ideologues with an ideal of the common good that just happened to be incompatible with liberal democracy, but isn't exactly inconsistent with the way Stalin himself treated them during his long late-night bull sessions. Their sophomoric antics on such an evening are juxtaposed with both a final wave of arrests and the farcical doings at a Radio Moscow studio when the dictator requests a transcript of that evening's concert, forcing the idiot managers to restage it since they'd forgotten to record the performance. The unvarnished brutality of the roundup is intercut with comedy on the level of, "You'd better do as I say, or off with your head!" It reminds you that despotism has always been the stuff of slapstick comedy, tapping into shared destructive fantasies. A thread runs from this scene through the rest of the picture as the featured pianist (Olga Kuryenko in the nearest thing to a sympathetic role), who holds out for a huge bribe before reprising her performance, sends a nasty message to Stalin that becomes part of the later power struggle.

Inevitably the story gets going as Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and spends a fatal night on his office floor marinating in his own pee, because the guards outside are too scared to investigate the loud thump they heard. Finally his henchmen are summoned to the scene, setting up the funniest scene in the picture as they compete to express grief and collaborate to move the still-living leader despite their great disgust at his urine-soaked clothes. It becomes clear that while the dim-witted Gyorgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor, way too old yet ideally expressing the character's lumbering incompetence) is Stalin's heir-apparent, real power will be seized either by longtime security chief Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) or the Moscow party boss Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). Beria would seem to have all the advantages, including a vicious streak that has him, on film at least, still personally torturing suspects, but everyone else's fear or hatred of Beria ultimately works to Khrushchev's advantage. The film leaves the impression that the result made little difference, since each man was committed to a degree of liberalization, if only to gain popularity. The film is even more insistent, however, about each man being out only for himself, while their Politburo colleagues are too dumb -- or too damaged in the case of longtime foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) -- to show any initiative.

From one perspective this approach indisputably trivializes history, but Iannucci's perspective and purpose are bluntly iconoclastic. He was disturbed to see Stalin portraits shamelessly on display in Moscow hotels, finding that equivalent to Germans displaying portraits of Hitler. While Russians might answer that Hitler helps explain why they see Stalin as a good guy, Iannucci presumably sees both men as tyrants and gangsters equally deserving of repudiation from their people. His film suffers from his conflicting desires to lampoon and condemn as it swings from the pitch-black comedy of the title event to the more dramatically brutal resolution of the Khrushchev-Beria feud. There's little funny about Beria's end, apart from Jason Isaacs's over-the-top portrayal of Marshal Zhukov as a two-fisted Russian cowboy -- as Khrushchev has his rival shot in the head and burnt in a courtyard -- in a compression of events that played out over several months -- and in fairness to Iannucci's intentions little is meant to be. To reinforce his point that all Stalin's men were gangsters -- hence, presumably, the casting of Buscemi in the first place -- he ends the movie like a gangster picture, apart from an epilogue that uses title cards to skim through future Khrushchev power struggles that might have made for a full-scale sequel. Ultimately The Death of Stalin is grimly entertaining despite some tonal incoherence, and with Russophobia at a new fever pitch in the west, the nebulous attitude of the President of the United States notwithstanding, the picture probably has found an ideal moment to open wide in the U.S. Since Iannucci has next to nothing to say about communism as an economic or political system, Russians today are probably right to guess that his film's ultimate message will be that Russians have always been thugs and always will be. Since they take a tit-for-tat attitude about such slights, perhaps we'll soon see something in Russian about British or American scandals or atrocities, maybe something that makes Churchill or Reagan look like an idiot -- and if we did see such a picture here I suppose that would prove a point.

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