14ymedio, Daniel Delisau, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 31 March 2018 — “I never thought it would be you,” says Svetlana’s character to the actor Steve Buscemi, who plays Nikita Khrushchev in The Death of Stalin. At the end of the film, the daughter of the late dictator realizes that, after the struggle for power unleashed by the death of the man who ruled the Soviet Union between 1924 and 1953, Khrushchev had won.
Eight years after the premiere of In the Loop, until now his only feature film, the director and screenwriter Armando Iannucci has returned to the big screen with a film that remains true to his characteristic humor, as he satirizes the intricacies and intrigues of the political game.
In approaching such a dark historical period, both in the history of Russia and for all of humanity, it is almost instinctive to want to find a moral lesson in The Death of Stalin, beyond the humor. But Iannucci’s objective seems to be the same as that captured in his debut: to convey that in the intricacies of politics, which sometimes border on the absurd, winners and losers always emerge among its participants.
In spite of the obvious and well-documented events, there is little reliable information about Stalin’s death and how the principal and decisive political decisions were made in the days following his passing. Luckily the secrecy inherent in political life in the Soviet Union lends itself to artistic creativity, since it cannot be said that the film is based on real events, but on hypothetical facts that have freed it from the straitjacket of historical rigor.
At other moments, on the other hand, the film needs only to sip from reality to unwind the absurd. In the face of a need to find doctors to treat the apparent stroke that ended up killing Stalin, the film shows his main collaborators wondering which doctors they might call, given than 37 of the best had recently been imprisoned precisely because they were accused of wanting to poison the dictator.
In real life, the sinister Lavrenti Beria, one of Stalin’s closest collaborators and head of the NKVD (the body responsible for political repression and the murder of thousands of people), began to put an end to the well-known Doctors’ Plot and other repressive labors just one day after Stalin’s death. Overnight the Soviet Union’s primary torturer became its first reformer and liberator in an attempt to launder his image.
This dichotomy is captured in the film and finally ends up making us realize that the work of Iannucci could well have been called The Death of Beria, because while Khrushchev ends up victorious in the struggle for power, the head of the NKVD ends up being condemned to death by his closest Party comrades, who were not much better than him but who feared and hated him in equal measure.
“This is how people die when their stories don’t add up,” Khrushchev lectures Stalin’s daughter in front of Beria’s cremated remains. Unlike Stalin and other dictators before and after him, who in real life knew how to play their role as tyrants until the end, Beria wanted to change his role in the script of life when it was too late.
The sarcasm inherent in British humor, one of the main characteristics of which is the most subtle personal undermining, flows very well in political comedies such as In the Loop or The Death of Stalin, where the suspicion, paranoia and hatreds of the main characters — almost all of them politicians — form the central nucleus through which the action takes place.
“Coco Chanel messed with your head?” an annoyed Marshal Zhukov asks Georgi Malenkov, who is presented as a weak character with a ridiculous hairstyle, and who became Stalin’s successor for nearly two years after the dictator’s death, until he was deposed by Khrushchev.
There is, however, an ambiguity in this comedy around the use of Anglo-Saxon black humor. As a screenwriter, Iannucci is aware that humor has no limits, but its use in The Death of Stalin raises doubts about its intentionality.
Despite being a comedy, there are plenty of unpleasant scenes for the viewer, including executions, arbitrary arrests and torture carried out against the Soviet population for political reasons. Listening to the ingenious dialogues of several characters in the basement of the Lubyanka building — the headquarters of the NKVD — while in the background the gunshots of summary executions are heard, it is difficult to discern whether Iannucci’s goal is simply to exploit black humor as much as possible or to create feelings of disappointment in the audience, who know they are laughing at some macabre and fictional scenes but who also know that in an underlying sense what they are seeing and hearing is shockingly real.
Coincidentally, leaving humor aside, the projection of The Death of Stalin in Russia last January has managed to say more about the country’s current political situation than it does of the period led by the long-dead Soviet dictator. Fruit of an authoritarian tic, the Ministry of Culture at first suspended the projection of the film for being an insult to the history of the USSR and to Soviet citizens, but it was finally exhibited, at least in one Moscow cinema and to packed audiences, possibly because Russian law prevented its prohibition.
“Do not worry, nobody is going to be killed tonight, I promise,” says the director of Radio Moscow to the bewildered audience at a concert that had only been broadcast live, but that by order of Stalin had to be repeated so that it could be recorded and a copy sent to him.
Nobody comes to a bad end in that scene. Nor has the Russian authorities’ objection to the public screening of the film gone beyond the anecdotal. But reality and fiction are here to show us a country whose society is not yet able to demonstrate its patriotism — questionable but legitimate — if it is not centered on an authoritarian leader.
In the past it was Stalin and the rest of the Soviet leaders; today it is Vladimir Putin, who has been ruling for 18 years and can now remain in power for another six years, after his victory in the recent elections. It remains to be seen if the struggles between his successors that will take place after his departure may be the source for the script of another movie.
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