The Death of Stalin (2017)
What is your taste for satire? Whatever it is, there are no small slices available in the movie, The Death of Stalin. To say this movie, inspired by the graphic novel of Fabien Nury, is a satire is absolutely correct. The question at hand is what is it satirizing? And because satire is what it is, what is the message?
True satire is very difficult. It is challenging because we are supposed to see vices exposed, foibles, and evil as humorous. Was Stalin evil? He executed at will millions of people? And his cohorts willingly participated. Real men in history, men like Malenkov, Khrushchev, and Beria. In the movie killing is all part of the pleasantry, their everyday practice. Murders are indistinguishable from pulling fruit from a tree. Yet there is clear design in the humiliation and evil of the killings. At one point, Beria a self-proclaimed rapist of countless wives and little children, orders a soldier to, “Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it.” This is said as humor and there is something about it that is funny when he says it. Satire can do that. It is supposed to. But to what end.
When Jonathan Swift proposes that the Protestant English government start being served Irish children as food in order to control the population and poverty of the Catholics in Ireland it comes off as funny. But that is not what he is getting at. He’s not looking for the one-liner. He is getting at something much much deeper. And so too is the director Iannucci and his co-writers.
The political system that put Stalin in power was Marxism taken to its inevitable end. Stalin and his “yes-men” lackeys were in control of the means. They believed that they had to keep control for the collective interest. This made them god-like and indispensable, anyone else… dispensable. This even goes for the well-educated and skilled doctors Stalin believed were out to kill or depose him so he had them exiled and killed. The irony being that when he really needed a good doctor there were none available.
I fear that the satire here will ultimately be lost and many will only see the humorous bits as an end to themselves. As in, “Oh yeah, that’s a funny movie.” It isn’t a funny movie! Its humor is only there to drive home a point.
This is what we are supposed to understand: that these men were bad men. That their philosophies were bad. There morality was bad. The humor in the satire is supposed to allow us to take in how evil they were because if it were done seriously, we might not accept it because it is so over the top. This is why Swift wrote the way he did in “A Modest Proposal”. There were others that disagreed with the policies of England to Ireland but it was the satire of Swift that bit hard and didn’t let go. It still bites.
On a side note, I remember watching the wretched movie Downfall (2004) about the last hours of Hitler’s life. I had no feelings for it. I couldn’t wait for him to kill himself. I had no empathy for such an evil man and his regime. I didn’t have empathy for the men in The Death of Stalin either but somehow the satire made it a little more palatable.
A movie like this coming from the industry that produced it, seems so ironic due to the fact that so many popular people in the media seem hell bent on trying out Marxist-like ideas here in the US.