When laughter becomes terrifying: Armando Iannucci’s ‘Death of Stalin’

May 20, 2019 · 4 min read
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‘You’re not even a person, you’re a testicle!’

Comedy has often been regarded as a less socially important genre than drama. It only takes a short look at history to realize how false that perception is, but the stigma still holds. In a way, it is precisely this warped conception that allows comedy to be as powerful as it is. In literature, comedy allowed to discuss heavily controversial topics when censorship was at its heaviest. The ‘hey it’s just a joke’ rhetoric has undoubtedly been used for less than commendable purposes, but comedy’s perceived inoffensiveness definitely had its perks as well.

The best kind of laughter is the one that isn’t found in the obvious, in the safe. And indeed, who in their right mind would take a look at the history of the Soviet Party and think it is the perfect comedic material ? Thankfully, most good comedies aren’t born out of minds that are completely in their right state. It is exactly out of this concept that Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin was born, making one of the darkest times in Russian history a scene for continuous laughter. It was clearly a risky bet, but it payed off brilliantly.

Making comedy out of equally dangerous and powerful individuals is not an easy line to walk. On one hand, you do have to turn them and their actions into ridiculous things in order to make it work, but it shouldn’t be ridiculous to the point of undermining the very real suffering that these people have caused. The events of the film take place in 1953. Many people in Russia that were alive during this time still are, and even those that weren’t most likely had some part of their lives affected by it. In a brilliant interview with Vice, Iannucci said he wanted the Russian public to see the film just as much as other, less directly affected, audiences. This intention can be perceived in every scene of Death of Stalin.

None of these men are supposed to be sympathetic. At best, they are sad, cruel, clowns; at worst, they look like something out of a nightmare. All shots of Bierna as he enters his victims’ cells are truly chilling, the darkness submerging him, all of his wickedness now inescapable. In a film where every single character of the main cast is at the very least a murderer, it takes a lot to become the villain — but a lot is exactly what Bierna is. As his crimes are enunciated in the trial, all laughter has to come to a halt. The brilliance of Death of Stalin lies in its capacity of knowing exactly when to stop. Having all these powerful political figures accidentally step into Stalin’s urine one after the other is funny; hearing about the 357 women that Bierna raped is blood-curdling. These two things are allowed to co-exist in the same film, reflecting the complexities of the time and of the genre itself.

These moments of pure horror don’t compromise how hilarious the film can get. Helped by a fantastic cast, it is rare that even a few minutes go by without a brilliantly delivered one-liner (‘Jesus Christ, did Coco Chanel take a shit on your head ?’) or equally hysterical dialogue. Relying more on words than on practical jokes reveals the theoretical nature of these men. They seldom do the dirty work, rather enjoying the simplicity of signing paperwork or shouting orders, letting their dishonourable business take care of itself. They’re good with words, but every physical bit reveals how clueless they truly are once they have to take action, from carrying Stalin’s soiled body into his body to clumsily running to Svetlana in order to get her affection. The film skillfully makes us consider these men as complete idiots one second and then reminds us of how dangerous they are the next.

Where Death of Stalin works is in its comedic roots. More specifically, the key notion that the audience is always laughing at the Committee, never with them. While it would have been easy to make any of these the “good” guy, if only for narrative purposes, Iannucci thankfully avoids this trap. We may laugh at their incompetence and silliness, but we are never forced once into feeling sympathy for them. The glimmers of humanity we find are in the small characters , the ones that manage to break inside the small circle, if only momentarily — Maria, the rebel pianist that unknowingly caused Stalin’s death, and even Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter who doesn’t know how to deal with her father’s death. As for the people of Russia, they will remain silent, abused, murdered figures, showing how enormous the disconnect between the population and its government is.

Death of Stalin is a deeply funny film, but each joke hides something bigger, and that is where it moves from simple comedic farce to biting, extremely necessary satire. Laughter is harder to produce than tears — while some things can be considered universally sad, it is no secret that comedic sensibilities can be quite personal. By landing somewhere in the middle, turning the horror into entertainment, Iannucci found a way to get our attention again and make us not only rediscover a story we thought we knew, but realize its relevance to today’s times.

A Series of Unfortunate Ramblings

I was never good at killing people with kindness, so I just talk shit about their movies instead.

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