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The Death of Stalin Director Armando Iannucci on Free Minds Under Soviet Rule

Under Stalin, people could be killed for carrying joke books about him. They did it anyway.

The Death of Stalin posterThe Death of Stalin poster"It takes a certain kind of imagination to look at the death of the most murderous tyrant of the 20th Century and say 'that's comedy gold,'" quipped an interviewer about The Death of Stalin, a star-studded and much-anticipated new film from director Armando Iannucci.

Iannucci, known most recently as director of the HBO series Veep, answered questions about the new film on Thursday after a screening in Washington, D.C. As for the movie's subject matter? "Comedy [is] tragedy plus time," said Iannucci.

The Death of Stalin starts with the infamous communist leader's death and follows the bumbling and bureaucratic antics of his cabinet ministers as they scramble to plan Stalin's funeral, curry the favor of his daughter, and secure a place at the top of the new pecking order. In the hands of actors like Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor, it's nonstop laugh-out-loud moments interspersed with casually chilling glimpses of Stalin-era Soviet realities.

"There's something about events like this that are so crazy that the only way you can respond to them is through comedy," Iannucci said. In research for the film, he found that people in the Soviet Union "circulated joke books under Stalin—jokes about Stalin, and [Lavrentiy] Beria, and torture, and gulags—and you could be shot if you had one of these on you."

"And yet," he continued, "people felt the need to come up with jokes—as if to say, you know, you can take my livelihood away, you can take me away, but if I can make fun of you" [he points to his head] "you haven't got me up here."

Previews of The Death of Stalin drew mixed reactions in Russia, according to Iannucci. But two days before it was scheduled for official release—after it had already been dubbed into Russian and shown to Russian media—the authorities banned the film from being shown in the country.

Iannucci doesn't really mind. "All they've done is they've just increased its profile."

Photo Credit: crop from The Death of Stalin poster

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  • Nardz||

    Veep is the best and realist show on tv.
    Mr. Robot good too.
    Together they lift the veil pretty well.
    Judging by Veep, Ianucci will be hitting progressives pretty hard in this one.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Veep,The Thick Of It, and In The Loop are all brutally funny, and anyone who disagrees probably lives in Philadelphia.

  • Half-Virtue, Half-Vice||

    Progressives love Veep because they have no self-awareness. Veephas won the Emmy like 5 years in a row; a Hollywood darling.

  • Nardz||

    That's the funniest part.
    "Legacy!" Selena exclaims as she slams her hand on the table. She will have her deal with China - in return for lifting of sanctions imposed by the US for "hacking" her, China promises to talk about freeing Tibet.
    That's a two-fer!
    The fake hack, and the horribly one sided "legacy" deal where the other side gives up nothing.
    And it went right over the Progs heads

  • Unlabelable MJGreen||

    Or they're not as obsessed with politics as you paint them to be. They love it because it's uproariously funny.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...people in the Soviet Union "circulated joke books under Stalin—jokes about Stalin, and [Lavrentiy] Beria, and torture, and gulags—and you could be shot if you had one of these on you."

    See this morning's Brickbat.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    This morning's brickbat is an excellent example of my thesis that proggies are overplaying their hand. Safe spaces, anti-fa, #MeToo, they are making The Onion look tame, parodying themselves into meaninglessness. I don't know how the end game will play out, but it won't be with them in charge.

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    The Onion is now actual headlines. It is reasonable to believe you are right about overplaying the hand, but then I am not exactly sure as to just what sort of "reality" we are moving toward. The media, for the most part, is their propaganda outlet, and that has to be considered no matter how absurd it is.

  • John||

    The thing is, even though I think they are loathsome in about a million ways, I can understand why someone would look at say Abbie Hoffman or Ralph Nader and think "I want to be just like that guy". Whatever you think of their politics, those guys made things happen and seemed to live interesting and exciting lives.

    How the hell would anyone look at someone like Auther Chu or Amanda Marcotte or the Daily Kos guy and think "I want to be them"? They all seem so unhappy and maladjusted and dreary. There is nothing glamorous or exciting about them. SJWs are the land of broken toys. They all seem to be people who are just unhappy, nasty freaks intent on punishing the world for their anger. Do you ever see these people having a good time or doing anything exciting or interesting? I don't.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Do you ever see these people having a good time or doing anything exciting or interesting? I don't.

    I suspect for many of them their idea of a "good time" is retweeting #MeToo and #Time'sUP stuff, going to Womyn's marches wearing pussy hats, and ripping on "Drumf" and other favorite rethugliKKKan bogie men, and just generally being a bunch of obnoxious twats..

  • John||

    That is about right. And who the hell in their right minds would want to be that way?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    That was an interesting take that Reason had on Howard Zinn - he illuminated a lot of facets of and perspectives on the history of this country that don't get taken into account, but it never occurred to him that people are motivated to do things they enjoy and which make them happy. He thought a proletariat with more free time would spend it all attending union meetings and reading about the history of class struggle, when they'd probably opt instead to hang out with friends, watch tv, etc.

  • John||

    David Horowitz grew up as a Red Diaper Baby in New York. His parents knew the guys who came over from Germany and started the Frankfurt School of Marxism. He describes them as the most dreary awful people. They were living in 1950s California and walked around in suits everywhere, spoke only of politics, had no hobbies or interests beyond politics, and loathed the local population for having the nerve to have a good time rather than work for the revolution. Hardcore leftists have always been sad, broken, unpleasant people. They used to just understand how to hide it.

  • John||

    I think they are as well. Progressives in the past have been great at marketing themselves as representing the fun and open minded portion of society and their enemies as drab oppressors. Whatever you think of the hippies and the left in the 1960s, they at least appeared to have a good time. Headonism gets old very fast but it makes for good copy.

    The contrast between the hippies of the 1960s and the SJWs today could not be starker. Even as conservative as I am, if you told me I could go back in time to 1967, Los Angeles or Height Ashbury or Swinging London sounds like a good time. I can't imagine anyone wanting to travel time to visit today's leftist bastions and be subjected to endless re-education and self criticism over the failure to use the proper 22 genders or how you are guilty of rape if the woman doesn't give written consent and still are guilty if she changes her mind six months later. Progs went from portraying themselves as fun-loving and open to prideing themselves on being, angry, broken, and depressed. I cannot see that having any lasting appeal.

  • Citizen X - #6||

  • John||

    Progs now own everything. But the idea that they are fighting authority is and part of a revolution is essential to their identity. So, every generation is more extreme and bizarre than the last because it has to find new issues to pretend is the establishment and fight against.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Modern progressivism clung to the anti-"square"-traditionalism of the hippies even as that tradition declined in relevancy, and jettisoned the inconvenient anti-authoritarianism and experimental spirit. Libertarianism is much more in line with the whole of '60s counterculture than anything on the left side of the mainstream political spectrum.

  • John||

    In some ways, but the Hippie left was never really about freedom. To the extent it was, it was about hedonism and tearing things down more than actual freedom. It wasn't what it is portrayed as.

  • Zeb||

    Depends on the hippies. Those who really just wanted to drop out or go back to the land, misguided as they may have been, were pretty focused on the freedom part. If not on the functioning society part.

  • JuanQPublic||

    I wholeheartedly agree.

  • John||

    The memory of Stalin in Russia is a little like the memory of FDR here. Like FDR, Stalin is remembered as the leader who saved the country and won World War II. Stalin, of course, is guilty of horrendous crimes. Moreover, the old USSR spent the last 30 years of its existence blaming Stalin personally for all fo the crimes of the Soviet Union as a way to absolve Lenin. "If only Lenin had lived and Stalin not taken over, things would have been different" was the line. That, of course, is nonsense. Lenin was if anything eviler than Stalin. Stalin was just a two-bit thug psychopath who wanted to stay in power. As horrible as Stalin was, Lenin likely would have been even worse because Lenin was not just a psychopath he was an intellectual.

    The problem for nations remembering monsters like Stalin is that to admit their evil means admitting the nation's culpability in enabling that evil. Stalin didn't murder 30 million people himself. So admitting how evil he was requires explaining why so many Russians followed his orders and enabled him to do that. Russia has as much or more to answer for for Stalin than Germany has to answer for Hitler. Worse for Russia, Russia won the war and thus was never forced to account for Stalin the way Germany was forced to account for Hitler. So Stalin has remained a largely unresolved issue for Russia and his memory and the guilt associated with it likely will never be resolved.

  • Nardz||

    What of Georgia and Austria then?
    Not to mention Ukraine, Estonia, Belarus, Latvia, the -stans, Romania, etc?

  • John||

    Nations feel guilty because they enabled the evil that happened. The Nazis didn't come down from Mars. They were Germans. The people of the WWII generation in Austria don't have to answer for Hitler being born there, but they do have to answer for why they cooperated with and participated in the things he wanted done.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Stalin was just a two-bit thug psychopath who wanted to stay in power. As horrible as Stalin was, Lenin likely would have been even worse because Lenin was not just a psychopath he was an intellectual.

    I sometimes wonder how strongly Statlin really believed in Marxism/ Communism and how much he just went with it because it was the system in place when he came to power and because it allowed him to control the people's lives. Lenin, OTOH, probably was worse because he strikes me as a true believer. And there's few things worse than a true believer of Communism.

    Put another way, if Russia had been, say, fascist or even capitalist when Stalin took over, would he have reformed to make the USSR "full communist" or just gone with it, so long as he was the man in charge?

  • John||

    Stalin was more of an arch criminal than anything else. We know who Stalin is because he was born at the right time and place. He had a ruthlessness and street smarts about him that made him invaluable to the Party. It also made the other members of the party no match for him in the power struggle that ensued after Lenin's death. Trotsky and the rest of them were a bunch of loser wanna be intellectuals. It would be like taking a bunch of Marxist professors and matching them up against Carlo Gambino in a power struggle for control of a gang. They didn't stand a chance.

    In the end, Stalin was all about himself. First, it was getting power and then it was keeping power. Had Stalin been convinced capitalism was the way to maintain his power, he would have been a capitalist, though an evil one.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    But Lenin did switch to the New Economic Plan when he realized things weren't working out. Stalin just said the hell with it and killed enough people to make it look like it was working. In the end, it might have been the same, just a different route.

  • JoeBlow123||

    "As horrible as Stalin was, Lenin likely would have been even worse because Lenin was not just a psychopath he was an intellectual."

    Lenin was much more practical. He initiated the New Economic Policy (market based reforms) because communism was failing. I am not sure he would have been worse, I think he would have ruled as an autocrat in a manner to maximize his power and stability like the Chinese communists are.

    Deng Xiaoping said "It doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice." More or less saying it doesn't matter if a policy is capitalist or communist as long as it works and keeps the Party on top. I think Lenin would have been the same way, he would have made practical reforms to keep the Party on top. Whether that is better or worse it is hard to say.

    Stalin would probably say "If it is not a cat then it dies" in response to Deng Xiaoping.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    But two days before it was scheduled for official release—after it had already been dubbed into Russian and shown to Russian media—authoriteis banned the film from being shown in the country.

    Iannucci doesn't really mind. "All they've done is they've just increased its profile."

    Sounds like the Russian government still hasn't figured out how the Streisand Effect works.

  • Sevo||

    "Sounds like the Russian government still hasn't figured out how the Streisand Effect works."

    But they figured out how to throw the POTUS election with some lame gifs!

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    "Comedy [is] tragedy plus time," said Iannucci.

    David Mitchell makes the same point.

  • Gilbert Martin||

    "It takes a certain kind of imagination to look at the death of the most murderous tyrant of the 20th Century and say 'that's comedy gold,'"

    I'm pretty sure that Chairman Mao owns first place in the most murderous tyrant of the 20th Century category.

    Stalin had to settle for second place.

  • Zeb||

    And both are still honored in their countries.

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    Mao killed a lot of those by accident, though.

    Most democidal tyrant, yes. But "starving people by trying to feed them" isn't the same as "starving people by trying to starve them".

  • Robert||

    Saw it this week, it was great. Steve Buscemi as Wallace Shawn as Nikita Kruschev.

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