An End to Repetitions: the violence of the breaking of the ice
Review of The Death of Stalin
by Daniel Erickson
The Death of Stalin, the tremendous new film directed by Armando Iannucci and based on the comic book of the same title by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, begins in Moscow with a performance of a Mozart piano concerto, performed superbly by the pianist Maria Veniaminovna Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), conducted by Spartak Sokolov (Justin Edwards) and transmitted through the radio by two highly competent sound engineers (Paddy Considine and Tom Brooke). It goes well, the audience in the hall applauds, the humble citizens of the Soviet Union have had
access to this moment of artistic beauty, and all can rest easy knowing that the social body is existing harmoniously.
But before the applause can fully dissipate, a call comes from the central authorities, from that most central of authorities – chief comrade Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), requesting a private recording of the performance. The engineers agree immediately (who would they be to deny a request from comrade Stalin!), but after Stalin hangs up his phone, the engineers reveal that there has of course been no recording made. They had assumed that they were simply producing a live transmission and had forgotten the demand of all bureaucratic demons – that there be no transmission without recording, that there exist no language or action, much less performance, without the possibility of total mortal judgment from above.
So the engineers attempt to stop the audience leaving, bribe the pianist to perform the Mozart a second time, call a replacement conductor from his home once Sokolov faints because of nerves, and grab homeless artisans and peasants off the city streets to make up for audience members who have left the space. We see the humble citizens could not gain access to this performance earlier except over radio, holding bags and goods for sale, confused but not unwilling to be drafted into the role of acoustic dampeners. As this process of recreation pushes toward a successful (if fraudulent) repetition of the Mozart, we see a meeting of the central committee of the Soviet Union come to an end. Stalin, waiting for his recording, finishes a list of all those who must be arrested and killed by the state this evening, before holding court and judging the jokes of spymaster Beria (the astounding Simon Russell Beale), deputy chairman Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Kruschchev (Steve Buscemi), and the painfully loyal Molotov (Michael Palin). Beria reads the lists and sends off his deputies to capture the citizens who have drawn Stalin’s adjudicating attention. Khrushchev goes home to his wife to repeat to her all the jokes and jibes he made that evening, because if you can’t remember everything you’ve said and done, than you can never know everything the others have on you, everything they could bring back into the light when you are at your weakest.
The engineers are able to create their copied Mozart, and the death orders of Stalin are carried out, but each action is deformed in such a way as to bring about the death announced by the title screen. Maria Veniaminovna includes a private message with the record, a message declaring her unending hatred of Stalin and his sclerotic despotism. Stalin chortles in laughter at this lack of respect, but the chortling turns into a cough, which turns into a brutal stroke. This relentless consumer of other people’s information has consumed a crumb of indigestible articulation and he falls to ground, never to speak another comprehensible word. After the body is found, Beria shows up first, looks through the secret safes at the back of the apartment and finds the secret lists and dossiers holding the next citizens to be annihilated and the secret atrocities committed by each of the members of the Central Committee. Here we see the second blockage of the repetition machine. Beria changes the orders of comrade Stalin, cancelling certain executions, introducing exceptions into the rigid state apparatus, acts of mercy. He aims to both selfishly be seen as the savior of the Soviet people and, seemingly sincerely, to free the Soviet Union from the logics of terror constricting the development of the revolution and the society. Maria’s writing of an unwriteable accusation kills the man Josef Stalin, but Beria’s attempt to end the terror against the expressly articulated desires of this dead man kills his existence as the head of state, as the animating force of the bureaucratic body.
This opening sequence is developed throughout the body of the film in joyous and terrifying motions as scared men and women desperately watch each other situate themselves in obeisance to a lord and father figure who has already disappeared. We watch them fumble, trip, pratfall, spin, always trying to see behind themselves, always attempting to be seen in the best light, only realizing gradually that survival and dominance cannot be sustained through obedience to this dead master. For anything to be done, they will have to do it themselves. Beria allies with Malenkov to take the chief roles of grieving the fallen leader, leaving Kruschchev to handle the boring logistics of planning the party. Kruschchev allies with Molotov to take down Beria and Malenkov, and to seal the deal he calls in the army, under Field Marshall Zhukov. Everyone attempts to gain the favor of Stalin’s children Svetlana and Vasily (Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend). It is unseemly and unsightly, watching these toads sweat to be seen as the most honorable, the most in charge. Beria halts all trains coming into Moscow to keep the peasants from attending the funeral, something they choose to do, because they see the fallen leader as a man who fought to give them freedom from tsars, from the Nazis. Khrushchev orders the trains back into operation, but doesn’t tell Beria, whose henchmen shoot on the grieving masses, so the Central Committee kills hundreds of their own most loyal subjects for the very act of grieving they are arranging and calling for.
And if the actions under Stalin’s leadership were uniformly carried out through brutal and horrific forces, crushing millions to death with little effective purpose beyond his need to sustain personal dominance over the situation, if the peasants were fooled by state media and censored opposition, if Stalin embellished the extent to which he controlled and was responsible for these questionable triumphs of revolutionary development, even if all this is the case, the peasants are
not wrong to remember that actions happened. In 1917 and 1945, the Soviet Union had not yet fallen so under the weight of the bureaucratic state that the only possible actions could be the farcical repetition of past grandeur, like so many corpses waxed and held in rictus by formaldehyde.
No, this is only the case once Stalin dies, and this is the movie we watch after Mozart falls away. We see the funeral, the party hosted by Khrushchev and used as a pretext for the coup against Beria and Malenkov, going smoothly, but always sickeningly to the letter of the law, flashing onscreen in title cards to prove the clean correctness of their actions. Nothing happens which has not been notarized or properly stamped. Nothing, that is, except the entrance of the bishops into this ceremony on the invitation of Beria. Everyone on the committee is horrified and
furious with Beria. “The bishops! Why are the bishops here?!” Of course we understand that the primary reason for not wanting the bishops there is the doctrinal atheism of the soviet union, and this is surely the reason for the arch-ideologue Molotov’s anger at their presence. But Malenkov and Khrushchev seem to see a more pressing problem at their inclusion – if Christian bishops representing the absent God above are allowed onstage, then the nation will be able to see that no one on the committee is capable of fulfilling the role of representative of Papa Stalin, much less filling in for the grand dead father himself. These are not angels speaking with divine wisdom; they are not imbued with revolutionary virtue. They can do nothing except record and follow the orders sent from above.
These men are the bishops, those who come after the Lord and angels and even the prophets, trying and failing to sustain the link to divine presence. They are useless figureheads even before death, utterly dependent on the pianists, on the soldiers, on the photographers, even on the interior decorators, on all those who actually do something. As Field Marshall Zhukov barks as violence within the council erupts in the final act – “If you want something done right, call the army!” He is wrong to claim these powers of action exclusively for the military, but he is
absolutely correct to dismiss the clowns at the center of the film. None of these figures are strong enough to hold firm a revolutionary state in the way that Stalin was, none of these are strong enough to act with full power.
And of course, the central ideological failing of Josef Stalin (besides and beyond and through the moral or historical failings) was exactly to view revolution as something to be frozen in place, to be stratified and statified, to be recorded and repeated to form and to letter. It should certainly be argued that it was a mistake to create the state he led, but once it had been brought into existence, it could only be led by an individual as supremely brutal and symbologically dominant as Josef Stalin. Such an argument, however, such a film, would be significantly less inviting of a comedic treatment, which is, after all, the expertise of Iannucci and company. Comedy begins and ends in repetition, in the passage from a situation to the state, and in the ultimate failure of anything even worthy of tragedy to trip into the world.
A final moment in this marvelous film – Khrushchev is informed by Beria of the letter Maria Veniaminovna sent with the recording at the opening. This letter threatens him because he is a friendly acquaintance of the pianist. He demands to know why she would act this way and threaten both their lives. She replies that her conscience demands it. She is a Christian and several members of her family were killed by Stalin himself. But even if she will be killed, she does not care, for she knows she will be granted “eternal life.” Khrushchev, exasperated, turning to leave the room, asks the question at the heart of every true bureaucrat - “Who the fuck in
their right mind would want eternal life? It would just be endless conversation.”