Wow! What in the hell was that? And what was it supposed to be? The Death of Stalin was billed as a comedy, but that’s not what it was. Sure there was slapstick, jokes, and one-liners, and bumbling idiocy. But that is not what propels the film, which is not funny, not really. Nor, frankly, was it really about “the death of Stalin,” with whom the film is done relatively early going in. Post-genre, The Death of Stalin mixes comedy into horror, into satirical farce, into the cinema of cruelty that was socialist realism. Slapstick is the least of the film. Not about the death of Stalin, the telos of the film lies in the execution of Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s head of the secret police and chief executioner, the burning of his corpse, and the disposal of the ash. The mirth is mirthless.
How one gauges the comic in all this will depend in part by how one understands comedy. Let’s assume for the moment that Aristotle was right in part. The characters in a comedy are, indeed, mean or base persons, not noble persons, but not as in The Death of Stalin, actually the meanest and basest ones, played up here as primarily ludicrous. “Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type, not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain” (Poetics, chapters 4 & 5).
Where does this leave The Death of Stalin, a not-funny comedy about total brutality and the brutalization of people? Is the film an “uproarious, wickedly irreverent satire” as per the blurb at Rotten Tomatoes? Has evil been made funny, as per the headline for the review at the New Yorker? There Anthony Lane called the film “dumbfounding,” without plumbing deeply what that might actually mean. Again, as per Aristotle, comedy represents people as worse than they are in actual life, whereas The Death of Stalin puts us at the bottom of human depravity. In comedy, enemies become friends. According to Aristotle, they leave the stage with no one killed and no one killing, whereas The Death of Stalin is nothing but about the pain of killing and being killed.
Speaking personally. In the last of a long series of executions, by the time Khrushchev and Marshall Zhukov execute Beria, I was just gasping for air, glad to be done with the these violent people and their satirical caricature, finished with a genuinely and brilliantly “dumbfounding” film that should leave you unsure what precisely to think about the utterly mordant spectacle and utterly atrocious people played for a not-so-cheap laugh.
About the film I’m not being completely disingenuous. In fact, we know that The Death of Stalin is primarily a sub-species of comedy. But how do we “know” that? How is that comedic impulse maintained? It does so by keeping up its guard. For all the killing in the film, Iannucci only shows two corpses, Stalin’s and Beria’s. It is around their bodies that the movie pivots and pitches. What keeps the slapstick in its constant and dizzying motion is the degree to which this is not, after all, a “serious” movie, despite the fact that there is not a shred of cuteness about it. To maintain the genuinely comic momentum, the camera never stops to dwell upon the corpses of the victims. That’s what I mean by non-serious. The camera shows us killing, not death. I don’t mean by this remark an ethical indictment of the film, which is, indeed, something of a masterpiece, but only to suggest that “the corpse” might be the limit that defines the genre of mordant or so-called “black comedy.”