Film Review: The Death of Stalin

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I don’t know why I seem to be so out of step with the prevailing opinion. Feels like I’m marching to not only a different drummer, but a whole different rhythm section and possibly on another continent. I bought this movie because of the rave reviews; yet my husband and I both found it frankly awful, a major disappointment. When it was over, we looked at each other and said, basically, Yuck.

Why did we dislike it? Where to begin! For a start, the script barely qualified as humorous. This is 2020, and foul language is neither inherently funny nor ground-breaking any more — it’s just tedious (saves the screenwriter from having to be clever, I suppose). The casual violence was pretty ghastly, though I do give the team props for keeping most of the explicit gore just out of frame.

It fails the Bechdel Test pretty badly; there are only two “significant” (barely) speaking parts for females, and neither of them is what you’d call inspiring. They have names, OK, but never in the film do any two named women talk to each other. And really, what have we for these two secondary female roles? The inevitably (ho hum) lovely pianist Maria Yudina, who allegedly becomes the mistress of Kruschev after suicidally defying Stalin’s power; and Stalin’s daughter Svetlana. The problem for me: both are tired old stereotypes in period Soviet drag. The lovely-but-willful Statuesque Love Goddess Female (though she’s a pianist, not a nightclub singer like Gilda) and the Neurotic Spoiled Brat Female. Yawn.

To be fair, it’s not just the female roles that are boring. None of the roles has any depth. In good storytelling (whether novel or movie), there’s some kind of transformation: at least one character needs to change, grow, learn, disclose unforeseen facets of personality or history, etc. These characters seem too obviously derived from a comic-book: each one is a shallow and unvarying archetype and walks through the plot unchanged.

I have my own movie-litmus-test, in addition to Bechdel’s: there has to be at least one character I can like or relate to, one character I can care about, to make it worth my time. I couldn’t find one in this film. The leading male characters were repulsive, and the female ones too insubstantial or cliché to bond with. The closest I found to a likeable character was the dear old conductor who gets rousted out in his PJ’s to lead the orchestra in an emergency Mozart concert; and his was (alas) a brief bit part.

It’s not that I’m super-prissy about historical satire; I don’t require a hushed and reverent tone when Serious Subjects are on the programme. Mel Brooks’ off-the-wall takes on anti-Semitism through the ages (The Producers, To Be Or Not To Be, etc) are great fun. I don’t think every film about Shoah has to be Schindler’s List. Bible stories are fair game for humorists; I thought Life of Brian was a hoot, crucifixion scene and all. And not every story about Soviet Russia has to be The Gulag ArchipelagoRed Plenty was actually a treat, as was A Gentleman in Moscow. Moreover, Grand Guignol can be funny and work as an armature for drama— Sweeney Todd is a great musical.

Yet somehow, this treatment of Stalinism’s countless victims and perpetrators seems to me not only tediously crude and cruel, but excessively impersonal or glib: we see victims exclusively from the viewpoint of their oppressors, from outside. There are moments when the attempt to retell history as farce — the choreography of night-time raids as if they were music-hall bedroom slapstick — almost works, but … not quite. There are moments when a little bit of genuine human feeling creeps in (as in the betrayal of a father by his son and their later confrontation), but… not enough.

Then there’s the problem of misogyny. The core male characters indulge in an endless, vicious spew of misogynist ideation and speech that I found very tiresome after just 10 minutes, and downright annoying after 15. Eventually I started to get a creepy feeling that the actors were maybe enjoying themselves just a bit too much — being Naughty Bad Boyz, getting as nasty and hateful about women as they possibly could? Were they revelling just a tad in the artistic license to set aside “political correctness” (aka good manners) and unleash their own internal misogyny? I’m sure writer and director would insist that they were merely highlighting the poisonous misogyny of the male power elite of Stalin’s time; and particularly in Beria’s case there’s ample evidence that he was a monstrous sex predator… and yet… there’s a kind of blokey har-har-ness about the whole project that put me off.

For example, that little homophobic har-har moment about the corset. Very blokey indeed. I was expecting something like Alpha House in 1950’s Moscow… but what I got was more like Animal House meets The Sopranos in 1950’s Moscow.

There were a few moderately funny moments, okay, and I did try to meet the film halfway and have a laugh… but then again there were “some very bad quarters of an hour.” I honestly don’t see what the critics saw in it, don’t understand its high ratings from viewers, and would not recommend it to friends. The overall impression for me was of a drunken frat party comedy skit: uneven, repetitive, lazily and gratuitously offensive. Material for a handful of bleak political cartoons or a short Monty Python sketch perhaps, but unwisely stretched into a very disappointing evening’s viewing.

What I would recommend instead:

If you savour witty drama about seriously nasty people lying and killing to get and keep political power, try the UK version of House of Cards… or go back to its deep cultural sources, Macbeth and Richard III. Then there’s Aimee and Jaguar, if you want a moving study of women living through a lethally totalitarian historical moment. Or The Lives of Others, for that suffocating sense of life in a surveillance state. If you want real historical accuracy, there’s always the oral history Women of the Gulag.

If you seek easy belly laughs about scarifying times, why not break out the popcorn and hunker down with the Richard Lester Musketeers films, which manage to find slapstick (and satirical) humour in the Siege of La Rochelle and surrounding events… If turning monstrous criminals into darkly comic figures is your cuppa, Sweeney Todd for sure; but go for the 1982 film of the stage production with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn, not the flashier but less satisfying 2007 remake. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead managed to hit that haunting sweet spot between absurdist comedy and tragedy, including a certain amount of violence and satirical commentary on worldly power. If you hunger for an Anglophone movie about Russian dysfunction (though this one is post-Soviet) I’d recommend the bleak and blackly comical indie film Pu-239. Within its darkly ironic storyline, humanity, heroism and tragedy still have a place.

What I’m saying — no matter what I think Death of Stalin was trying to do, I can think of several movies that do it better. No need to waste an evening on this one.

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