Nota bene: Gallows humor

Did you laugh when you saw this tweet? I’ll admit that I did.

I mean, if you told me that it’s not funny, I’d agree with you! Some things just aren’t funny, as PG Wodehouse discovered during (or, more to the point, after) World War II.

And yet, The Death of Stalin is doing OK at the box office, after a great run in the UK last year; it’s an uproarious Armando Iannucci comedy about such lighthearted matters as torture, child rape, and summary execution.

Anthony Lane captures the mixed feelings you have when you watch this movie:

It is grossly neglectful of the basic decencies, cavalier toward historical facts, and toxically tasteless… What the hell is there to laugh at, you may ask, in this sump of depravity?

The damnable problem, however, is that it’s funny; ten times funnier, by my reckoning, than it has any right to be.

The Death of Stalin is not enjoyable in the way that In The Loop was; it’s not something I look forward to rewatching in the way that I will happily re-consume W1A or Veep Season 5. It’s much darker, much more troubling. (But still, very funny!)

What fascinates me is not so much that Iannucci went there, and more the places where he and his distributors have pulled back. As Lane notes, Lavrentiy Beria “was a serial rapist of young girls, but the film, thank heaven, chooses only to glance at that habit”. And then there’s the question of the official poster for the film:

Here, Beria is very conspicuous by his absence. Beria is to The Death of Stalin as Ian Fletcher is to W1A: the protagonist through whose eyes almost everything is seen. The movie is an ensemble piece, to be sure, but Beria is first among equals, at the very center of the film. He’s also, by far, the cruelest and most evil of all the characters. To leave him out of the poster, especially in the UK where Simon Russell Beale is a famous actor, is to flinch exactly where the movie doesn’t.

Or consider the film’s Matryoshka dolls: Once again, no sign of Beria.

In the US, Beria did make it onto the poster, squeezed in at the far left, but only as part of a switch-out whereby the problematic Jeffrey Tambor gets erased in favor of a woman. The film marketers, in other words, have displayed sensitivities which the filmmakers decidedly don’t. (There is no way in which this is a politically correct movie; it doesn’t even come close to passing the Bechdel Test, for instance.)

I suspect that The Death of Stalin is ultimately too dark to be a big hit in the US, and that the distributors are correct to try to keep it within the realm of social respectability. And much as I loved the movie, I’m weirdly glad about that. Right now it’s more important than ever to feel queasy in the face of evil. And few films have ever succeeded by making their audience feel queasy.