Cinematic Releases: The Death Of Stalin (2018) - Reviewed

Anyone who has grown up in the post World War II western world can attest to just how much headspace Russia has in our western psyche. One only has to sit through a viewing of Rocky IV to see our western perceptions of Russia manifest in the flesh. At a towering 6’5”, Ivan Drago is a full 7 inches taller than Rocky, and the living embodiment of our western fears, as he is unimaginably strong, intimidating, and ruthless. I’ll never forget the sense of foreboding I felt as Drago stood over Rocky, cradling a blood spattered Apollo Creed in his arms, and declared “If he dies, he dies.” No better moment in cinema history captures the western perception, of the geopolitical threat, of the ice giant living across the Pacific.

Rocky IV is not alone in this stereotyping, as western films and television shows are littered with countless Russian bad guys. There are the KGB criminals, like in The Americans (2013), the Russian prostitutes like in the TV show Svetlana (2010), and the drunken pessimists like the astronauts in The Big Bang Theory (2007). You could make a strong argument that Russians are the west’s favorite go-to archetype for villains and melancholy jokes.

Scottish writer/director Armando Iannucci’s latest film The Death of Stalin has no shortage of these pokes at the bear. Based on the French satirical comic book by the same name, which is written by Fabian Nury, The Death of Stalin is a side-splittingly hilarious carnival ride through the power vacuum that followed the death of the communist dictator in 1953. However, unlike the examples above, Stalin’s characterization feels more light hearted than cynical, due to the film’s self awareness of these stereotypes of the dark Russian temperament.

In Woody Allen’s Love and Death (1975), another western comedy about life in Russia, Russian scholar and war hero Boris Grushenko (played by Allen) says, “To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love, but then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer, not to love is to suffer, to suffer is to suffer.” This line is an obvious stab at what the west views as Russia’s brooding and melancholy character, and this attitude is definitely present in The Death of Stalin. However, through it’s all-star casting of Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov, Simon Russell Beale as Lavrenti Beria and others, this attitude loses most of it’s gloominess. By allowing these actors to play these roles, as themselves as these characters, with their natural accents intact, rather than a serious attempt at capturing these historical men, Iannacci makes this chapter of Russia’s history more relatable to western viewers. This historical moment is Russian, but the jokes are western, therefore, we as a western audience can easily see ourselves in the middle of it all, finding warmth and joy in a story usually shrouded in fear.

Taking this approach, the film has less in common with the never-ending regurgitation of the west’s tired and overused stereotypes and more in common with Russia’s own postmodernist thought. In the theoretical works by Andrei Sinavsky titled “On Socialist Realism” (1959), it is suggested that the artistic utilization of socialist realism is neither the “truthful reflection of life”, as was the official Soviet criticism on the subject at the time, or the “distortion of reality and poor ideologized art”, as believed by western criticism at the time. It embraces symbols of socialist realism while keeping a playful distance from it’s ideological content. This style of thinking is at the very heart of The Death of Stalin. In Mikhail Epstein’s paper “The Philosophical Implications of Russian Conceptualism”, he writes that this philosophy “presupposes that any system of thought is self-enclosed and has no correspondence with reality.” This is at the very root of the ongoing joke that our characters find themselves in. They are part of a system that has no basis with the reality of the moment, and they know this, however they are willing participants anyway. Epstein goes on to say, “The idea is used…as a verbal statement or visual projection… so that all its factual or practical extensions are revealed as delusions…which undermines totalitarian and hegemonic discourse and promotes self-irony as a mode of humility.”

The Death of Stalin is a bright and humble comedy about a dark subject, which has one foot on each side of the paradigm. It is also just funny. Did I say it is funny? It is really funny. So funny, you might just fall out of your chair from laughing so hard. It’s the kind of laughter that may make you wonder why we ever needed these stereotypes in the first place. 

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-Dawn Stronski