Stalin satire is offensive, says historian

The last laugh: The Death of Stalin features an all-star cast, including Steve Buscemi (right).

Is it right to turn Joseph Stalin’s brutal reign into comedy? That is what The Death of Stalin has done. The film, which opens today, has been praised for its satire. But some disagree…

The officials are panicking. They have just found Joseph Stalin lying in a pool of his own urine. The old dictator’s days are clearly up. But such was the fear he inspired when alive that, even now, nobody dares to pronounce him dead.

So begins The Death of Stalin, the new film by Scottish satirist Armando Iannucci. It retells in a farcical way the events that followed the Soviet leader’s death. We see Stalin’s closest advisers argue, swear, stab each other in the back, and generally act stupid and pompous. Critics have praised the movie’s comic brilliance.

In this sense, it resembles Iannucci’s classic TV shows The Thick of It and Veep, which mocked the incompetence of British and American politicians. But there is a big difference. Unlike his Western counterparts, Stalin caused the deaths of millions of his own people. According to one historian, his brutality makes him an inappropriate target for satire.

Writing in The Guardian, Richard Overy argues that Iannucci’s humour does not help us understand history. Stalin’s victims “deserve a film that treats their history with greater discretion and historical understanding”, he concludes. A better approach, he suggests, is that of the 2004 film Downfall, a very serious account of Hitler’s last days.

Of course, Hitler has been widely satirised himself: everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Tom and Jerry took a pop at him. YouTubers rewrote the subtitles to a scene from Downfall, to comic effect. Even under Nazi rule, jokes about Hitler and his cronies were rife.

In fact, it is hard to find a dictator who has escaped satire. The American film The Interview ridiculed North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Sacha Baron Cohen (of Ali G fame) parodied Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi in The Dictator. In China, former leader Mao Zedong’s face adorns ridiculous tourist trinkets; some argue that this is a form of mockery.

Like Stalin, these men were responsible for untold suffering. How should we deal with their legacy?

Comedy of terrors

“Make fun of them,” say some. People are powerless to stop a dictator’s brutality - especially if that dictator is dead. But satire serves a purpose. By undermining the dictator’s authority, it lets us vent our anger. At its best, it also exposes how dictatorships come to exist in the first place. Satire is fun, but that does not mean it is not serious.

“Yes,” reply others, “but there was nothing fun about life under Stalin.” The only honest way to confront such a figure is by looking at the terrible facts of his regime. Humour trivialises dictators, creating the impression that we do not need to take them seriously. This is dangerous and insulting, especially from someone living in the safety of the West.

You Decide

  1. Are you excited to see The Death of Stalin? Why (not)?
  2. Is satire courageous?

Activities

  1. Without looking them up, write definitions for the following words: satire, mockery, insult. Then compare what you and others came up with.
  2. Imagine Iannucci has asked you to come up with an idea for his next satirical film. Write him a letter in which you choose your subject and suggest how he should approach it.

Some People Say...

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”

- Karl Marx

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Death of Stalin has been very well reviewed. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian called it “the film of the year”. In the Financial Times, Danny Leigh noted that “Iannucci’s disgust at his characters [is] always bubbling away amid the hilarity.” But some critics agreed with Overy: “Maybe the Stalin terror and its aftermath isn’t such a good subject for comedy,” wrote the Independent’s Geoffrey Macnab.
What do we not know?
How the film will go down in Russia: there is no confirmed release date and some think it may be banned. Stalin enjoys a far better reputation there than in the West; in a June poll, Russians voted him the “most outstanding” figure in history. Vladimir Putin has avoided criticising him. Indeed, many argue that he partly models himself on the Soviet leader.

Word Watch

The Death of Stalin
The film is based on a French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. The events it depicts are broadly based on fact.
Soviet leader’s death
Stalin died on March 5th 1953 after suffering a brain haemorrhage. It has been suggested that he was poisoned, but there is no hard evidence of this.
Millions
Under Stalin, masses of civilians died from starvation, execution or hard labour. Estimates of the number of deaths he caused tend to range from 20m to 60m.
Richard Overy
A history professor at the University of Exeter, Overy specialises in the second world war and Nazi Germany.
Under Nazi rule
These gags were known as “whisper jokes”, as telling them openly could lead to punishment. A compilation of jokes was one of the first books to be published in post-Nazi Germany.
The Interview
The film imagines the assassination of Kim. Shortly before its planned release, a group thought to be linked to North Korea hacked the computers of Sony, the distributor, and threatened to attack any cinema that screened it. As a result, its general release was cancelled.

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