When my friends asked me if I wanted to go see Armando Iannucci’s “The Death Of Stalin,” I initially refused, thinking that it would be just another boring British documentary. Oh, how wrong I was! Having now watched the movie twice, the last adjective that comes to my mind is “boring.”
The film begins in March 1953 with, as the title suggests, the death of the former Soviet Union’s dictator Joseph Stalin. Shortly after Stalin dies in a puddle of his own urine, we are introduced to the power struggle among leading Soviet politicians, including Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), whose biggest dream is to take control of the state. Even though Iannucci’s ridiculous representation of Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders made me laugh, I was continuously asking myself, “Should I really be laughing at this?”
The movie is an adaptation of the French graphic novel series of the same name by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin and generally agrees with historical facts, meaning that many of the events shown in the movie actually took place 65 years ago. Being a Pole brought up in an anti-Communist and anti-Stalinist atmosphere, I am familiar with satirical portrayals of the Soviet state. There are tons of jokes and anecdotes about the absurdity of the Communist Party, so the humor Iannucci employed in the film was not new to me. Nevertheless, one thing did surprise me: the director actually ridicules the trauma of many Russian people, and not just their government. In his otherwise successful political satire, Iannucci presents thousands of people being trampled to death in the streets of Moscow as just another absurdity of the Soviet Union that we should laugh at. Sitting in the cinema, I heard the laughter of my fellow movie-goers during these graphic scenes. This reaction made me feel especially uncomfortable during scenes that featured graphic images of dying people. I still do not know whether Iannucci intended for me to laugh at these. Maybe I am just not a fan of dark humor, but it seemed like a little too much for me.
Another problem with “The Death of Stalin” was that it was made by a British filmmaker. While I believe that it is important to make such movies and to know that Russians are probably not ready to produce a satirical movie about the Soviet Union, this doesn’t mean that other countries should have a right to comment on such sensitive subjects such as Stalinism. Of course, there are many movies about other nationalities made by British entertainers, but the situation gets complicated when we want to talk about a regime that has killed millions. Plus, isn’t it a little weird to hear Stalin speaking English with a British accent? Of course, it is still better than some of the hilarious imitations of Russian accents that we can hear in American films such as “Red Sparrow,” but let’s be honest: a figure like Stalin played by a British actor does not look any less ridiculous.
I guess it comes as no surprise that “The Death of Stalin” was banned and labeled as “extremist” in Russia. As reported by the Russian media group RBK News, Yelena Drapeko of the Parliament’s Culture in Russia said that she had “never seen anything so disgusting in my life.” Pavel Pozhigailo, another culture committee member, also said that the movie “insults our historic symbols.” At the same time, Iannucci argues that Russian citizens loved the movie. I decided to do some research and look at some Russian film review websites to see people’s reactions to the satire. I went to the website КиноПоиск (the Russian counterpart of Rotten Tomatoes) to see Russians’ opinions of the movie. To my surprise, the rating of “The Death of Stalin” happened to be only slightly lower than that on IMDb: it got a 6.8 out of 10, while the IMDb users gave it 7.2 points. Maybe Russians do not care that much about the British accents and humor in the movie. To understand their reactions better, I decided to read a few comments, and what I found more or less agreed with my predictions. It seems that most of the commentators liked “The Death of Stalin,” but there were still a few who did not. Critics’ main argument against the movie was its oversimplification of the Soviet reality as well as its mocking of matters that were the source of great anguish for many Russian families. Even though the majority of reviewers did not support the ban of the film, they still seemed to be concerned about the way that Russian history was portrayed by Iannucci.
Overall, I think that “The Death of Stalin” is good political satire. It provides us with a reflection of Soviet reality in a cracked mirror with a great cast ensuring that we leave the cinema feeling satisfied and content. However, being good satire did not stop the movie from being culturally problematic. It raised a lot of questions about British and American film portrayals of other countries. While I personally left the cinema satisfied and content, I also felt slightly disturbed. Should we regard “The Death of Stalin” positively? I think the final judgment, in this case, belongs to those who suffered from Stalinism.