As a big Armando Iannucci fan, I was looking forward to The Death of Stalin, and saw it last night. It was an odd experience: I didn’t laugh much, but still thought it an excellent film. I think the fact that it’s Iannucci and that half the cast are recognisable comedians (not only the leads, but people like Justin Edwards in minor roles) lulls us into expecting boffo comedy when really what we have here is, as the tagline has it, terror. It certainly contains comedic moments, but I spent most of the film feeling viscerally terrified of the story and (some of) the characters—which is exactly as it should be.
This feels like an effect of living through the past 18 months. It’s getting harder and harder to laugh at the people leading us to our doom, when the stakes are higher and higher. That doesn’t mean we can’t make fun of them—I still appreciate the work of people like Ann Telnaes for that—but it’s impossible to make light of them. This is a time of dark political comedy, or no political comedy at all. And the darkest of political comedy is barely recognisable as comedy.
This is where I think Peter Hitchens missed the point. I don’t think Iannucci is trying in any way to make light of Stalin or the events surrounding his death. He’s using comic moments to enhance a fairly straightforward and effective depiction of a horrible reality: that everyone surrounding Stalin and Beria lived in terror. They lived in fear for their very lives.
Showing comic moments simply heightens the reality of the depiction, because comic moments are part of life, whether you’re the humblest worker or the General Secretary. That was what made The Thick of It such a compelling portrait of the corridors of power: these people joke and swear and fumble, just like the rest of us. The effect in The Thick of It was funnier at the time because the stakes felt relatively low; pre-credit crunch, domestic UK politics wasn’t nearly as cruel and vindictive as it feels today. The fourth season set at the beginning of the coalition years was still very funny, because austerity hadn’t fully taken effect, and everything was up in the air. But I’m not that surprised that there hasn’t been a fifth.
In its own way, The Death of Stalin achieves what Downfall did: it shows us that these monsters were human. But that’s valuable. That’s a warning, that we ordinary humans can become monsters too, if we aren’t careful; or can fall victim to them.
So Hitchens is wrong. The Death of Stalin doesn’t trivialise these events. He also neglects the second major character’s death in that charge: one might consider a gag about people not wanting to kneel in Stalin’s piss to be making light of his death, although I don’t, but there’s nothing light about the execution of Beria and the disposal of his corpse. There was no pleasure in seeing countless extras shot at every turn, either. The audience I was with wasn’t laughing at any of that. That doesn’t make the film a failure, or actively bad. It’s an excellent film about bad people—including some of history’s worst.
(This comment on Hitchens’ post echoes my reaction, but Hitchens dismisses it with the comment “Well, at least we can agree it’s not funny. Trouble is, it is supposed to be” (my emphasis). Needless to say, I think he’s wrong about that, too; he presumes too much about the intent of the people involved in making it. This interview with Iannucci suggests his intent was far from making a laugh-a-minute film. It’s the interviewer who uses words like “hilarious”, not Iannucci himself.)