On Friday, Twitchy, the daily catalog of, as Jonah Goldberg would say, the intellectual wet market that is Twitter, spotted an unusual technique invented by prolific libertarian tweeter “Neontaster” to smoke out Chinese government apparatchiks trying to pin the Wuhan Flu disaster on any nation but China:
Of course, they won’t do it; being discovered having mocked Fearless Leader Xi Jinping is a surefire invitation to the Chinese Gulag. But then, the penalty for laughing at those controlling a totalitarian socialist regime has always been thus:
Even those totally committed to the Soviet project were not safe. Card–carrying party members often shared ‘anekdoty’ (political jokes) with each other to air their frustrations with a regime that constantly fell short of its grandiose promises. In early 1934, Paraskovaya Pomelova, a party member in her late twenties, shared a joke with one of her colleagues:
“Stalin went for a swim in the River Neva and began to drown. A collective farmer was passing by and jumps in to save him. Back on shore, Stalin begins to ask the farmer what he’d like as a reward, but, realizing who he’s saved, the farmer interrupts: ‘Nothing! Just don’t tell anybody that I saved you!’”
Pomelova was arrested in 1937, at the height of Stalin’s purges, for the joke she had told three years earlier.
Now available on Netflix (and also available for rental or purchase on Amazon Prime Video), the opening of 2017’s The Death of Stalin gives us a taste of the Bizarro World atmosphere of the Soviet Union. A concert being broadcast on the radio in March of 1953 plays Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23. Stalin calls the broadcasting booth and tells the producer how much he loved the performance and would like a recording to remember it by. The producer, trembling in terror, immediately says “of course!” There’s just one problem: the live radio broadcast hadn’t been simultaneously recorded. Thus, the producer and his engineer must keep as many of the audience members in the theater as possible. Round-up numerous peasants to make up for the applause that would have been missing thanks to those who have already left. Find a replacement conductor — and deal with a pianist who hates Stalin with a passion and won’t perform under any circumstances… except for a large enough bribe. (The pianist is based on real-life Russian musician Maria Yudina (1899-1970), and played by former Bond Girl Olga Kurylenko)
In writing 1984, George Orwell wanted to give readers in the West a taste of the craziness of totalitarian regimes by transplanting the Soviet Union circa 1948 into the slightly futuristic London of 1984. The fear of being ratted out by your neighbor, the fear of being sent to a “reeducation center” at any time by uttering an out-of-date phrase or giving a superior the wrong look was omnipresent. But Winston Smith was a mid-level clerk airbrushing away history in the bowels of the “Ministry of Truth.” In The Death of Stalin, once we’re past the set-up of the orchestra recording, we get a satiric look at how Stalin’s inner circle behaves both before and after his fatal March 1953 cerebral hemorrhage.
Written and directed by Scottish-born Armando Iannucci, who previously created HBO’s Veep, The Death of Stalin plays like the inept bureaucracy of Veep with the addition of periodic bullets to the heads of political prisoners. For viewers who only know him from as the ruthless mayor-cum-gangster Nucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire, Steve Buscemi as a bald, pudgy — and very vulgar and funny — Nikita Khrushchev will be a revelation. Sort of along the lines of a comedy version of David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago, Iannucci wisely kept the actors’ native English and American accents, rather than risk line readings that sound like Boris and Natasha meets Star Trek’s Mr. Chekov.
Unless you consider Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction to be comedies, I think The Death of Stalin must be the most blood-splattered comedy since Robert Altman’s original 1970 cinematic adaptation of M*A*S*H. But in a way, those films are negative images of each other. The theme of Altman’s M*A*S*H is that the only way the doctors can stay sane in-between hours of blood-soaked “meatball surgery” is by going completely crazy while on break. In The Death of Stalin, it is the comedic characters themselves doing the murdering, with the venal and corpulent deputy premier Lavrentiy Beria (played by British actor Simon Russell Beale) by far the worst of all.
As Kyle Smith wrote about The Death of Stalin at National Review in 2018, this juxtaposition of gore and guffaws can be painful to watch:
Beria’s men stroll up and down his cells shooting people, and the gunshots aren’t particularly comical. Laughs can happen in close proximity to violence, but not the real, gruesome, historical kind. Stalin’s mustache? Funny. Stalin’s murders? Not funny. You have to keep the reign of terror walled off if you want to play the palace intrigue for laughs. At its peak, I think, Monty Python would have devised a caricature of Stalinism that ventured far enough from the ghastly truth to make for a wholly satisfying comedy.
Comedy is all about surprise, so I’m trying to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible. But I don’t think I’m giving any plot elements away by mentioning the style of the closing credits, which feature each actor’s in-character black and white photo, and then having their faces airbrushed away or blacked out, in classic Soviet style. When the credits arrive at Jeffrey Tambor’s photo, his image completely vanishes, leaving nothing but the background remaining, which in retrospect foreshadows all too well what has happened to the veteran actor’s Hollywood career shortly after The Death of Stalin was released to British theaters in October 2017. (Right down to Tambor’s replacement with the image of the actress who plays Stalin’s daughter, Andrea Riseborough, on the film’s poster artwork and DVD case(!) in a truly Soviet touch.)
The film’s recent addition to Netflix’s rotating list of product is a rather timely one, given the rise of “Democratic Socialist” obsessed leftists such as young Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and old Bernie Sanders. As one wag recently joked during our extended Coronavirus lockdown, “So how is everybody enjoying the free 30-day trial of Socialism?” The Death of Stalin is a reminder of what happens when that free trial becomes a lifetime purchase.