What in the Hell is The Death of Stalin?

Death of Stalin

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.”

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(Syracuse University) Jewish Studies Fall 2018 (Looks Like)

POS REL 131 Great Jewish Writers_KF_MCRPOS REL 114 2018 Fall_JWWPOS REL 135_Intro to Judaism_2018 flyer_ZB_MCRFall 2018 COURSES -JSP FlyerPoster HON 340POS REL 300_Holocaust-Memory-Visual-Arts_SGruber_Fall'18_3POS REL 435_Modern_Jewish_Thought_distrib_ZB_MCRPOS REL 333-Yiddish Lit in Trans_KF_MCR_Fall'18

A small program, we take visual presence with a lot of seriousness in the Department of Religion and in the Jewish Studies Program. Jewish Studies should look like something. It should have a look, projected out into the public sphere. One thing for sure. We have a serious gender problem that needs to be fixed seriously. Working on it asap.

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LSD & Religion (Teaching Richard Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz at Syracuse University)


In class today talking about Richard Rubenstein’s After Auscwitz (1966), I suggested to the students that the turn away from a personal God towards the impersonal God of mysticism was a hallmark of the late 1960s and early 1970s. That is to say, that what Rubenstein early on called “paganism” turns out to be just mystical, which today is more or less common, even banal, but which wasn’t then, at least not yet or only as an emergent phenomenon. I claimed further that LSD had no small part to play in this transformation of religious consciousness at that inflection point in time. Innocently, I then recommended to my students that they actually ask their rabbis, priests, and ministers, assuming that they were my age or just a bit older, if they dropped acid when they were their age and how that may have influenced the way they thought about God, spirituality, and religion. I got a very good rise out of them. Animated but naive, my students know nothing about even the near past. What’s funny is that they can neither believe nor imagine that their rabbis, priests, and ministers did drugs, and that this may have had some important influence on the way they understand the world about them. The question itself, in turn, turned on the questioner.

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Narrative Powers of Women & Failure of Cultural Translations (Galit Hasan-Rokem at Syracuse) (April 11)

Galit Hasan-Rokem

Honored to announce this year’s annual B.G. Rudolph Lecture sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program at Syracuse University.

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חמץ (Pink)


(chag sameach)

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Anti-Semitism Derangement Syndrome (Friends of Jeremy Corbyn)


Powerful “special interest groups,” “control of the media,” and so on. If people stopped talking, maybe this episode in the UK would correct itself in due course. But each utterance only makes matters worse. According to this article in the Daily Telegraph, this FB post was posted at the “We Support Jeremy Corbyn”  group. It was was “liked” by more than 2,000 of the group’s followers. Almost 1,000 commented asking for their names to be added to the text. Anti-Semitism has this particular derangement. The letter writers who want to defend Corbyn against anti-Semitism use anti-Semitic figures of speech. The structural derangement in question is a disassociative one in which the brain seems not to understand the words that come out of one’s own mouth.

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(Satmar and the Holocaust) Sectarian and Visionary (Va’Yoel Moshe)


Guiding undergraduates through an English language introduction to the Yoel Teitelebaum’s Va’Yoel Moshe presents something of a difficulty. What exactly is this thing? Does it reflect a mainstream of orthodox and ultra-orthodox thinking, or is it something of the outlier, a hothouse world-view.

For many of us interested in Jewish religious thought, Va’Yoel Moshe is an infamous text with an infamous teaching, which is that the Holocaust constituted God’s just punishment of the Jewish people for the sin of Zionism, that Zionism was the cause (siba) of Hitler. But this is not quite right. Read one way, the sin was not Zionism as such, but rather the violation of an oath, namely the three oaths established in tractate Ketubot of the Babylonian Talmud, which includes an oath forbidding the Jews to go up to the Land of Israel like a wall, en masse as a collective. And there is nothing more serious than violating an oath sworn to God. The internal logic is airtight, mostly because the thinking casts such a wide and consistent net across the entire Jewish social spectrum.

What then is Va’Yoel Moshe?

Technically, Va’Yoel Moshe is a sectarian text, meaning that it breaks off from the social mainstream; i.e. insofar as it self-identifies in opposition to what, in its view, was the vast majority of Jews in the first half of the twentieth century. Va’Yoel Moshe makes the interesting historical/sociological claim that most Jews, even among the most religious Jews, either supported the Zionist project (“in public, before the eyes of all of Israel”) or did not do enough to voice rebuke against it. Except maybe towards the end, the introduction to Va’Yoel Moshe exhibits none of the Jewish fellow-feeling, the ahavat Yisrael of another Hasidic response to the Holocaust, the Eish Kodesh. Its point of departure and guiding thread is neither Jewish suffering nor human suffering, as such. In this binary and asymmetrical view, God is perfectly just and the entire community of Israel is guilty.

The main body of Va’Yoel Moshe is halakhic. But the introduction contains this one peculiar moment, which is visionary in nature. Heretics delay redemption. In tractate Rosh Hashanah 17a, heretics are pictured stretching out their hands against the “Zevul,” which is explained by Rashi to mean the Temple. In other words, heretics destroyed the Temple through the particular sin of “heresy.” But which Temple was destroyed by heresy? The rabbis know that the first Temple was destroyed by the sin of idolatry, the second Temple by the sin causeless hatred. Neither were destroyed by “heresy” as such. Two explanations are offered. Either it is the case that heresy prevents the earthly Temple from being rebuilt. Alternatively the reference is to the Heavenly Temple.

Attention now shifts away from this world to the next. Citing sources, Va’Yoel Moshe imagines tzadikim building the Heavenly Temple by their own good deeds. “In this vein, it is told that the holy Tzanzer Rav, the Divrei Chaim, once commented at his tisch that the Heavenly Temple was complete, and was lacking only the curtain. Rabbi Yehoshua of Tomashov remarked, ‘We believe with complete faith that the Rebbe is able to make the curtain.’ The Divrei Chaim did not reply. However, on another occasion as he sat down to the tisch, he began by remarking, ‘How do you know that I didn’t make the curtain? It is only that a certain wicked person tore it up with his sins.’”  In short, the kind of heresy represented by Zionism has this long metaphysical reach. The power of heresy to defile and tear up a metaphysical object in the Heavenly Temple stands in mirror opposition to the power of the righteous to build the Heavenly Temple and to destroy idolatrous heavenly temples.

In a strange way, Va’Yoel Moshe is an erotic text. It has to be given that the supposed law of the three oaths has the Song of Songs as its major prooftext.  “I adjure you, daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles and by the hinds of the field, that you now awaken or stir up love, until it please” (2:7). The upshot is clear. Do not awaken love for the land and the Temple until its proper time, until the coming of the messiah. Yes, the Zionists “[attracted] Jewish hearts with something appealing to the eyes.” But as per the midrash in Eichah Rabbah, when Messiah comes and the people restored, God will be amazed at the patient staying power of Israel to wait out the exile, to withstand this test. Returning again to the formulation of the three oaths in tractate Ketubot, the teaching of R. Elazar includes this threat, to which the Va’Yoel Moshe returns to twice in the introduction. “If you fulfill the oath it is good, and if not, I will abandon your flesh and all will devour you like the gazelles and like the hinds of the field.” The erotic moment in Va’Yoel Moshe is one without pity.

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