As Plato articulates: “Excess liberty, whether it lies in state or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery.” The balance of power in the mid-twentieth century Soviet Union was certainly, heavily, inclined towards the state. In a despotic regime, liberty is a privilege. In The Death of Stalin (2017), this privilege is not so schematic either. It is shackled (paradoxically) by the chains of ‘noble’ ideology and loyalty. This provides a recipe for extreme perplexity, chaos, and incertitude – i.e. a breeding ground for satire. As our own socio-political realities have always proven, political satire is a timeless genre.
Ignorance is an overarching theme in the film. Ignorance – not just of morals, but of facts that make all the difference between life and death. It emerges from a web of inescapable sycophancy, privilege, anger, and paranoia of the characters. Set against the backdrop of the ‘Great Purge,’ The Death of Stalin distills this ignorance to solidify satire. For instance, Stalinism has brainwashed Molotov (played by Michael Palin) to the extent that he can even pretend his wife is a ‘traitor’ if it saves his own skin.
Satire flourishes in such deplorable ignorance of the characters. Comedy thrives on errors and vices that we find ludicrous in others. Comedy is ‘vulgar,’ meaning it pertains to the common denomination and the general population. However, identifying it as us, and our vices too – that would put us to shame. Comedy has a dual function for the audience. It can either beguile you to expend your time or make you reflect and contemplate. The Death of Stalin does both. In doing so, it seeks to elevate itself to a potent satirical stage over a mere comedic one.
Ridiculousness (The Death of Stalin)
Laughter has a way of quickly deflating the ego of authoritarianism. This vulnerability makes it more hostile, rendering its falsities and fractures ever more prominent. A central objective of satire is to subject the vices, abuses, and shortcomings of individuals, ideas, and societies to ridicule – with the intent of almost ‘shaming’ them into self-improvement. The Death of Stalin executes this motivation with the utmost rigor.
It captures the ridiculousness of life under a fearsome despot in the opening scene itself when Stalin listens to a radio broadcast of a music concert and calls the station to order a recording of it. However, the concert hasn’t been recorded, leading an already anxious producer into full-blown panic. In desperation, he even takes people off the streets to sit down for a repeated concert, just so he can retroactively “record” it especially for Stalin. All the while he generously, ironically assures his forced guests, “Don’t worry, nobody’s going to get killed.” Given the absurdity of their circumstance, they need that empty certainty.
It’s this element of the film that lends it a warm, comic feel. The ludicrousness of its characters subliminally instills a sense of security in the viewers about their own reasonability. Which in turn effectuates a ‘restful’ viewing experience of turbulent times.
Brutal and hilarious by turns, The Death of Stalin mutates the despotic regime into a place of disturbing humor. It frequently exaggerates and caricatures one of the most secretive, genocidal episodes of the time into the stuff of dark comedy. Armando Iannucci‘s film combines true story with equal portions of fictional satire – condensing and rearranging the story to turn the most unusual factual reports into broad-spectrum humor comprising classic British wit, slapstick, and parody.
Steve Buscemi, as always, is a delight to watch in the role of the conniving Nikita Khrushchev. Simon Russell Beale fills the shoes of Lavrenti Beria, chief of the secret police, that sinister arm of the Soviet state. The actors’ accents are an unpretentious blend of British and American. No bogus Russian accents here, which adds to the absurdist flavor of the film. The authenticity of this film lies not with the narrative, but in the narration. The makers of the film have gotten rid of all pretense and presented a comedy that is true to itself.
Timelessness (The Death of Stalin)
Brian A. Connery writes in his introduction to Matthew Hodgart’s book Satire: Origins and Principles –
“Satire serves as an alternative form of power when the crimes committed escape the purview of law, religion, and politics… this is the reason why so much satire is directed against lawyers and judges , preachers and religions, and rulers and politicians; it is the corruption of the very agencies which are supposed to offer justice, order, and social and moral regulation that makes satire necessary.”
At its peak, the satirical impulse is humanitarian; and its essence is a stubborn benevolence that wishes the world well. Satire cries and scolds and mocks the man to return to his moral senses. When the satirist uses rousing language, we identify with his passion, but not with his caution. Therefore, we cannot assume that it is without human devotion. The language of shock and anger expresses a positive belief that the satirist hopes to evoke in his consumers, and this transference of emotions foreshadows recovery and redemption.
The term ‘political satire’ is pleonastic since satire is inherently political by nature. Essentially, anything that indulges in doctrinal, moral, or social tendencies of individuals is political. Satire takes birth out of the individual’s relationship with the state and his fellow subjects. The state has always been an intrinsic component of modern societies. So, the relationship with the state is a constant, fluctuating, and universal phenomenon. There will always be satire until this tense relationship ceases to exist. Until – ideally – there are no longer any ignorant people, making ridiculous decisions for imperious rulers.