All written as a vision of the future, 1994 was almost a quarter century ago. In this day and age, we may think that in The world is full of evil and uncertainty. But the truth is we are quite sheltered from the vagaries of dictatorship and the evils forecast in Orwell’s dystopian novel. Seventy years ago, Hitler and Mussolini may have been toppled but Franco was still Caudillo and Titp ruled Yugoslavia. We had further odious examples like Duvalier, Mugabe, Pinochet or what Amin yet to come.
But the grand-daddy of them all—Josef Stalin—bestrode an empire stretching from Brandenburg to the Bering Strait and was using newly developed atomic weapons and ICBMs to eyeball America for domination of the world. Three decades of dictatorship in what had become one of the world’s two superpowers made his whims more terrifying to more people then Hitler ever achieved.
And yet, the most effective documentary of this and Stalin’s demise is not a documentary but a black satire from in the venomous pen of Armando Iannucci. ‘The Death of Stalin’. The trailer does not do it justice. Sharper and more penetrating in its observations is the film review from Manihla Dargis in the New York Times on Match 8th. It is not a film for the politically queasy—it is by turns entertaining and unsettling, with laughs that morph into gasps and uneasy gasps that erupt into queasy, choking laughs. Cars rises to the occasion of the excellent writing, with Steve Buscemi (an artist at portraying scheming untrustworthiness—as he was in Fargo) particularly effective as Khrushchev.
Chaplin may have made a good first of sending up Hitler in his 1940 Great Dictator. But this is an is an even better vehicle for Armando Iannucci to exercise his unique grasp on how funny politics can be, especially when it drifts into being overly serious. The Soviet state under Stalin was the most efficiently draconian and merciless a monolith as the world has ever seen. He kept his teeth at the BBC by creating the Alan Partridge character but developed his political satire in The Thick of It, featuring the scathingly abrasion character that lampooned spin doctors in general and Alistair Campbell in particular. his shrewd mix of humour, current affairs and human frailty lead to more such success with the film In the Loop and the HBO series Veep. A 20 minute interview with Mark Kermode gives insight into his approach to this film.
So there is probably nobody better qualified to take on the demise of such a demagogue and portray the structure of fear on which despotism rests by illuminating its flaws and weaknesses by using the penetrating arc light of a scathingly targeted humour.
Guard 1: [hearing Stalin’s body hit the floor with a thud] “Should we investigate…?”
Guard 2: “Should you shut the fuck up before you get us both killed?”