A truly great poster! (via Wikipedia)

What a crazy idea, to make a comedy about the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. But there is something about the absurdity of the overly-bureaucratized communist mass-murder machine that lends itself to dark humor—the petty logistical concerns and office politics familiar to white-collar workers everywhere, combined with the matters of life and death that concern a government, particularly a totalitarian one.

The film definitely plays this weird juxtaposition to the hilt right from the opening scene, in which Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) calls the manager of a concert broadcast live over the radio to demand a recording of it. When the manager learns there is no recording, he frantically tries to reassemble the orchestra to perform it again. The piano player, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) initially refuses, but ultimately gives in when bribed. After the performance is finished, she places an insulting note to the dictator inside the record sleeve.

Intercut with this are scenes of Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of Stalin’s secret police, dispatching his men to seize people from their homes and torture them in secret prisons. Beria holds immense power in the government, and when Stalin dies—on reading the note Maria has written—Beria is the first into his office, hastily removing important documents before other members of the Central Committee, including Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), arrive.

They are reluctant to pronounce him dead, and even the doctors hastily assembled to examine him are hesitant to give their assessment. When they finally do, the Committee proceeds with Georgy Malenkov nominally in charge, but with all of the Committee members, Khrushchev and Beria in particular, jockeying for power.

Stalin’s children, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), arrive for their father’s funeral. Vasily repeatedly launches into drunken rages, attacks guards and makes wild threats. Beria keeps Khrushchev busy dealing with these matters while he moves to consolidate his power by putting the city under the control of the secret police, increases his popularity by pausing arrests, and seizes control of the train system, preventing people from entering the city.

Beria also reveals that he has the note that Maria wrote to Stalin. She is an acquaintance of Khrushchev’s, and Beria uses this to threaten Khrushchev, implying that he will use the note to incriminate both of them should Khrushchev try to cross him.

In frustration, Khrushchev orders that trains to Moscow resume running, causing people to enter the city and be shot by Beria’s secret police. The Committee argues over whether Beria or his lower-level officers should be blamed for this.

Meanwhile, Marshal Georgy Zhukov arrives in Moscow, annoyed to find his army confined to barracks. Khrushchev secretly strikes a deal with Zhukov to help him remove Beria from power during Stalin’s funeral.  Zhukov agrees, on the condition that Khrushchev has the support of the entire Committee, which Krushchev manages to secure by bluffing that he has Malenkov’s backing.

At a Committee meeting after the funeral, Khrushchev signals Zhukov and his men to storm the room and arrest Beria. After much badgering from Khrushchev, Malenkov reluctantly signs off on the summary trial and execution of Beria.

The film ends with Khrushchev watching Maria play at a concert while Leonid Brezhnev (Gerald Lepkowski) looks ominously over his shoulder.

It’s an odd movie, with scenes of slapstick comedy (the Committee members awkwardly transporting Stalin’s body from the floor to his bed) mixed with more subtle satire, as in the sequences depicting Committee meetings, and one unforgettable scene in which Khrushchev and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) are speaking contemptuously of Molotov’s presumed-dead wife Polina, who was arrested as a traitor to the Party, only to change their tone mid-sentence to singing her praises as Beria appears with her in tow, having released her from prison to secure Molotov’s loyalty.

The humor throughout is very, very dark: for example, there is a running gag in the scenes in the secret police prisons where we repeatedly hear prisoners off-screen exclaiming “Long Live Comrade Stalin!” followed by a gunshot.

But in addition to the sometimes over-the-top satire, the plot is that of a very tight and coherent political thriller, as Khrushchev and Beria joust for power. I went in expecting it to paint all the Soviet elites as villains in equal measure—and they certainly all do some nasty things—but in my opinion the film pretty firmly sides with Khrushchev as the hero and Beria as the villain. The former is depicted as vulgar and a bit corrupt, but reasonably well-meaning. (He reminded me, in both looks and manner, of a Don Rickles character.) It’s impossible not to root for him over Beria, who, besides all his other crimes as head of the secret police, is a sexual predator of the most evil sort. It is altogether fitting and satisfying that the most graphically violent death in the film is Beria’s execution.

As you might expect, the film is very controversial, and was banned in Russia and former Soviet States. A member of the Russian Culture Ministry stated: “The film desecrates our historical symbols — the Soviet hymn, orders and medals, and Marshal Zhukov is portrayed as an idiot.”

I can’t speak to the hymn, the orders, or the medals, but I will say that while Zhukov is certainly a caricature (he’s played by Jason Isaacs, whose hammy acting  works much better here than in Harry Potter), for me, he was one of the most sympathetic characters in the film, after Khrushchev and Maria.

I would like to see a historian specializing in Soviet history do a thorough examination of what is and isn’t accurate in this movie. This article mentions some inaccuracies—notably, that Beria’s downfall was more protracted than the hasty arrest and execution depicted in the film. But that’s the sort of change that can be excused for the sake of the drama. I don’t know much about the Soviet Union post-World War II, but on cursory scanning of Wikipedia entries about the people and events depicted, I was surprised (and quite often disturbed) to learn how much of it was accurate.

Of course, the mark of a really good work of historical fiction is that it’s not just about the time period depicted, but that it contains observations about human nature that are relevant to the present-day. This is why, for example, the historical dramas of Shakespeare are still read and performed today.

So does The Death of Stalin contain any interesting lessons beneath the caricatures of historical enemies of Western capitalism and farcical depictions of Soviet state ceremonies? It’s hard to say. Maybe there is something about the dehumanizing effect that power has upon both those who wield it and those upon whom they exercise it. But that has been pretty well picked-over by people like George Orwell. The absurdity of bureaucrats administering lethal force? Joseph Heller covered that. So I’m not sure this picture brings anything new to the table in that regard.

Would I recommend seeing it? I don’t know. If you’re a Soviet history buff, it might be interesting to see what they got right and what they got wrong. If you like your comedy extremely black, then it might be worth a watch. But if you prefer uplifting cinema, or if you don’t like violence, or if you are offended by swearing, or–above all else– if one of your relatives worked for the Soviet Secret Police, then you should probably skip it.

In the trailer for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”.

This movie really surprised me.  It was made in 1948, around the time of what is called the “Second Red Scare“, when concern about communist infiltration was very high.  Given that, the content of the movie is astounding.

Fred Dobbs (Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are unemployed guys looking for work.  They convince an old prospector named Howard (Walter Huston) to help them on an expedition for gold in the Sierra Madre mountains.  The first remarkable thing about the movie is a speech given by Howard in his first scene:

Howard: Say, answer me this one, will you? Why is gold worth some twenty bucks an ounce?
Flophouse Bum: I don’t know. Because it’s scarce.
Howard: A thousand men, say, go searchin’ for gold. After six months, one of them’s lucky: one out of a thousand. His find represents not only his own labor, but that of nine hundred and ninety-nine others to boot. That’s six thousand months, five hundred years, scramblin’ over a mountain, goin’ hungry and thirsty. An ounce of gold, mister, is worth what it is because of the human labor that went into the findin’ and the gettin’ of it.
Flophouse Bum: I never thought of it just like that.
Howard: Well, there’s no other explanation, mister. Gold itself ain’t good for nothing except making jewelry with and gold teeth.

What’s so remarkable about that, you wonder?  Well, what Howard is describing there is what is known as a Labor Theory of Value–the value of something is determined by the labor put forth to get it.  This is an economic idea that is commonly associated with a fellow named Karl Marx.  And it’s a response to the claim that gold’s value derives from its scarcity–a major component of non-Marxian, liberal economics.

Also in the trailer for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”

So, about twenty minutes into the movie, we have gotten a lecture on Marxian economics.  This is all the more interesting because the rest of the movie is devoted to proving over and over that greed for wealth corrupts people–specifically, Dobbs.  Howard repeatedly predicts that the gold will drive men to madness, and does it ever.

Dobbs’s inevitable corruption is fun to watch–that Bogart guy was a pretty good actor, you know that?–and Walter Huston  is excellent, even though his role is fairly predictable.  He is, essentially, an infallible sage, and normally those characters are pretty dull, but Huston imbues him with personality.  What is not clear to me is why he bothered to come along, since he believes almost from the outset that the expedition will be a disaster, and it proves to be exactly that.

It was odd to me that the movie’s most famous, yet often mis-quoted, line: “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges” was spoken by a rather poorly-acted, bandit character.  I thought his character was pretty weak.  In fact, I felt that the bandits had too big a role in the film, when all they really needed to do was show up at the end when Dobbs’s luck runs out.

I keep coming back to the economic “moral” of the movie, though.  It’s a very socialist message, what with the capitalist who desires to earn for himself being depicted as either a monster or a buffoon, and the character who opens up describing the labor theory of value depicted as a wise and thoughtful figure.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking: “Well, this is it– Mysterious Man has finally gone completely crazy and is now seeing communist conspiracies everywhere.  He must have been listening to Glenn Beck too much, and he just lost his tenuous grip on reality.”

1950s anti-communist pamphlet

To be clear, I’m not saying I think this movie was some kind of evil communist-Hollywood indoctrination plot.  It was based on a book by a mysterious German called “B. Traven“, who was apparently a socialist.  Well, when your movie is based on a book by a German socialist, you can’t be surprised if some German socialism creeps in.  I doubt John Huston wanted to make Marxist propaganda; he just wanted to make a Western, and the book he adapted it from had some Marxist propaganda in it.

What surprises me is that, despite how popular accusing people in Hollywood of communism was at the time, the film wasn’t banned or censored, and John Huston wasn’t hauled up before the H.U.A.C. to explain himself.  I’m not saying any of that should have happened, I’m just saying it’s weird that the film apparently got released without any censorship or controversy, which is kind of amazing given the zeitgeist.

Seeing as it’s International Workers’ Day, it seems it’s only fitting to address an issue that some of my Republican friends like to raise. I was inspired to write about this on reading one of  Ferrerman’s posts, in which he revealed he gets the same question. That question being:

“Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

Okay, so it’s rarely phrased that way anymore. In fact, it usually isn’t even a question; it’s an accusation. And, for the record, I haven’t been. “But that’s not good enough”, say the inquisitors; “are you sympathetic to them?”

Well, I think it would be good if wealthier people paid higher taxes. I believe that something ought to be done to help the poor people all over the world. And Marx also believed that something ought to be done to help the poor. And Marx believed in confiscating property from the wealthier classes.

“Ah-ha!” the Republican reader says to himself. “I knew it would come out eventually!”

There are some key differences, though. I don’t think, as Marx did, that private property is a bad thing. I think private property is a very good thing. I also don’t have a problem with people having more money than others. And I think his fixation on “class” issues is almost morbid. There will always be classes, so long as there are different kinds of people. Then there is his labor theory of value, which I think is just plain silly. So, on the whole, I am not a Communist. Or a Marxist.

But there is still that bit about making wealthier people pay higher taxes nagging at us, isn’t there? What sort of depraved mind would come up with such a scheme, if not a Marxist?

Well, it’s like this, you see: I am thinking of it in marginal terms. The marginal value of a dollar is much lower for a rich person  than it is for a poor person. Because the rich person has many dollars, one additional dollar doesn’t mean nearly as much to him as it does to the poor person. The same is true for a hundred dollars; which mean only a bit more than the one dollar to the rich guy, but a great deal to the poor guy. (I’ve read all this somewhere–John Rawls, probably.)

Now, I wouldn’t think of proposing so ridiculous an idea as everyone having exactly equal wealth. I don’t think anybody would. For one thing, it would cease to be true the instant someone bought something. It’s a straw-man argument when people say that.

It’s also not an issue of jealousy or resentment; I don’t favor these policies out of a desire to punish the rich or wage class-warfare; it is just that the whole system seems to work better when the rich pay higher taxes.

Well, hope I’ve cleared that up. If you don’t quite understand this yet, read this essay by Stephen King that Thingy linked to.

As I have said, smart people often fall into the trap of believing this. But it is not true: for many terrible things were done in the name of communism; but communism was an explicitly internationalist movement. Fascism is an explicitly nationalist movement.

It is worth pointing out that during the Nazi’s rise to power, they fought against the communists. Fascism and communism are both cruel, but they are very different in terms of their core philosophy and assumptions.

This is why I have such sympathy for the libertarians; their philosophy serves as a safeguard against the evils of both nationalist fascism and internationalist communism.