“I’ve had nightmares that make more sense than this” says Kaganovich, one of the Presidium members jockeying for power, and survival, in The Death of Stalin. The film’s strapline is “a comedy of terrors” and it will certainly appeal to those who like very dark political satire (and can cope with very bad language). But it also raises important questions, for all of us, about intellectual and political freedom in our contemporary culture.
Armando Iannucci, the film’s director, describes it as “a picture of what happened when being allowed to express a difference of opinion disappeared… labelling anyone who opposes you as the enemy who mustn’t be given the opportunity to speak.”
Set against the backdrop of Stalin’s cult of personality, in which expressing even the smallest question about his authority led to torture and death, the film dramatises a tense battle for survival amongst members of the Presidium after a stroke incapacitates and then kills him. To avoid death themselves, the remaining leaders must ensure that any view they express fits in with the perspective of those around them. As the character Kruschev says “this is how people get killed – when their stories don’t fit.”
A central scene (and perhaps the funniest, in a Pythonesque style) is the Central Committee voting upon who should succeed Stalin. No-one dares to fully raise their hand until they see whether they will be part of the unanimous agreement of the whole committee. As Iannucci reflects “These were very powerful people, but in fear that if they said the wrong thing they could be taken away and shot.” Thus, the film dramatically, and shockingly, illustrates what happens when people, apparently without an objective moral foundation, seek to fit in with others so that they can survive and hold on to power.
Yet, in marked contrast, there is one character who has the courage of her convictions, regardless of the consequences. The pianist Maria Yudina speaks out, saying that she is not worried what will happen to her, because she has the assurance of eternal life. (In reality, the actual Maria was indeed highly critical of the Soviet leadership because of her Christian faith).
Iannucci says that the film responds to the way in which Donald Trump “calls you unpatriotic or fake news” if you speak against him. That may indeed be his motivation. But the film inevitably also raises wider questions about what is sometimes today called the tyranny of liberalism. What happens to people in public life who express, from conviction, a view that runs counter to the popular perspective? Unfortunately, they are often vilified and ostracised. They may not be shot, as in the days of Stalinism, but is it right for them to be publicly and politically shot down? Where does that leave tolerance and individual liberty?
Nick Pollard is co-founder of EthosEducation.org and EthosMedia.org which provide free downloadable resources to help school pupils and the general public to explore spiritual, moral, social and cultural issues through the latest films.