Sunday, 15 April 2018


66. “Do not defy me, sit your arses down!”

It is a bit of a complicated web, but films are often made this way: “The Death of Stalin” is a French-British-Belgian co-production, with a British director, based on a French graphic novel, with a script by four British writers, and starring a multi-national cast led by American and British actors – no wonder the Russians have banned it or, at least, refused to give it a certificate.

On the face of it, the film is a farce, starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin and Paul Whitehouse, about the political jostling and one-upmanship that followed the death of Stalin in 1953, and the "Great Terror" of death lists and torture that was used to control the population up to then. The names are familiar - Khrushchev, Molotov, Zhukov and so on – but the main thrust of the action is how these names are single-mindedly engaged in their own power struggle, with the collateral damage this inflicts on the Russian people being used as further ammunition for that power struggle. The acting is broad, as well as the accents – every actor keeps their own, with no attempt at a Russian one – perhaps as a way of maintaining levity, and probably because playing it too authentically would turn the film into a drama without changing the script.

No-one likes their history written by someone else, especially when their countries are on less than friendly terms, but when it is in the service of satire, highlighting a period of history that ought never to be forgotten, having the Russian Ministry of Culture saying the film is part of an anti-Russian information war must have played into Armando Iannucci’s hands. After nearly thirty years of producing and performing  satirical TV and radio shows, from “On the Hour” and “The Day Today” for the BBC – two shows that used both the format of news bulletins, and cut-up and disinformation techniques, to disrupt how we think about facts – to “The Thick of It” and “Veep,” to be able to rile the Russian establishment, by playing its history back to them, must have felt par for the course.

The easiest and most effective way to defy an ideology is to take the piss out of it, and “The Death of Stalin” has quite a job in balancing the absurd machinations of the Central Committee of the Soviet Union with the deadly consequences of those actions, much in the way that the sitcom “’Allo ‘Allo” is considered to trivialise the tragedy of the Second World War. Not to tell the story in any capacity would be treading a thin line into casual indifference but banning it – the film has also not been shown in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – displays an unintended ironic disregard for the story it tells.

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