The Esoteric Teaching of “The Death of Stalin”
I recently watched Amando Iannucci’s “Death of Stalin” on an airplane and laughing out loud. When I landed, my seat mate asked what I was watching, “The Death of Stalin,” I answered, “the second funniest totalitarian movie ever.” Should I feel guilty for having thought so?
Stalin, that murderous ideological tyrant, managed to die peacefully in his sleep. His death sets off a power-struggle between his oft-tyrannized would-be successors. Each of these successors lacks something that Stalin found essential to maintaining his rule. Malenkov, Stalin’s titular successor, lacks his ability to know his will and enforce it—and his waffling and spinelessness make for some of the movies’ finest moments. Beria and Molotov, both of whom saw it necessary to continue Stalin’s brutality, find themselves competing, against their instincts, with the liberalizing Nikita Khruschev to control the Soviet future. Nothing in the annals of totalitarian governance is as funny as watching these mutually-suspicious successors gather around a cabinet table to make decisions about Stalin’s funeral and about the future of the country.
Many critics would have us feel guilty about finding “Death of Stalin” funny. Comedy does seem to be oddly out of place when treating a man responsible for the deaths of 20 million people. Conservative critics especially note that making light of Stalin’s murderous dictatorship would and should never be done when it comes to the Holocaust. Why, they ask, can we be made to laugh at Stalin but not at Hitler? Maybe Stalin stands for Trump, ask some reflecting the unintentional comedy of relating everything to Trump. The great Alexandr Stolzehnitsyn did not write comedies, certainly not like Mel Brooks’ “To Be or Not To Be” with his Hitler rap or “Springtime for Hitler.” Totalitarianism is serious business!
“The Death of Stalin” handles the problem of evil by, for the most part, abstracting from Stalin’s victims or covering them with dark, morbid humor.
Much of the movie’s comedy is quite educative. It concerns the effects of living under totalitarian, violent governments that aim at controlling one’s thoughts. It makes respectable men into fawning, corrupt sycophants. The totalitarian’s children are corrupt and spoiled, and hence cause no end to problems from those who would succeed Stalin. Few people can think and act in the aftermath of such a totalitarian, it seems. Few can handle political responsibility in the aftermath of Stalin’s death. Justice and love appear completely superfluous and beside the point in human interactions. Everything is subordinated to the needs of the moment, because the wind will probably shift soon to create different needs. Unwinding the system of murder, informants, and mutual suspicion, while trying to consolidate power, runs up against a doubting population and a feckless leadership. Even organizing a simple state funeral becomes an unending source for conflict and hence comedy.
“Death” shows the inescapable effects of human nature under conditions of arbitrary power or tyranny. None of the ugliness is lost, but it is turned into an occasion for the dashing of higher human hopes. Its teaching is more likely to be conveyed today through comedy, since so few people take seriously the conflicting of goods that makes tragedy work.
“Death of Stalin” does not merely present a picture of the unwinding of Soviet totalitarianism. It presents a living picture of the thought-controlling, would-be totalitarians that are a permanent possibility in modern life. Consider today’s diversity culture. There are the feckless academic “leaders,” like Malenkov, who cave at the unreasonable demands of protesting students. The diversity advocates are the spoiled children, who have every humor indulged and every demand met with fawning deference. There are those who are trying to promote the common good of the university under these confused circumstances, who end up being subject to arbitrary justice, Title IX witch hunts, and twitter-killings. Brett Weinstein and Erika Christakis are portrayed in this film in the form of peasants and lower level party members who have run afoul of the arbitrary dictates of the Central Committee.
No one has yet written a satire about the modern social justice university. The issues that it raises must still be taken seriously. “The Death of Stalin” allows us to take a critical step away from the arbitrary “justice” at the heart of the social justice university. What is a crime for some to say is NOT a crime for others to say. Certain thoughts must be left unsaid. Today’s common sense is tomorrow’s thought-crime. Though we should be able to laugh at our social justice university, it is better to laugh at a dead tyrant and the confusion that he sowed than at thousands of live ones who can still cause trouble. (This reading is, I would submit, no more implausible than the reading of those juvenile obsessives who see Donald Trump all over the script.)