(2019) Documentary (MUBI) Josef Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Lavrenti Beria, Vyacheslav Molotov, Gregori Malenkov, Enlai Zhou, Valko Chervenov, Yumyaagiin Tsedenbal, Dolores Ibárruri. Directed by Sergey Loznitsa
In the pantheon of 20th century monsters it is clear that Josef Stalin stands right up there with Adolph Hitler and Chairman Mao. These three men were responsible for the death of hundreds of millions of people through genocide, war, starvation, and political assassination. These men had an agenda which was mainly about holding on to absolute power. All three were authoritarians. They remain, to this day, cautionary tales.
When Stalin died in 1953, it created something of a crisis in the old Soviet Union. He was the glue that held together the USSR after Lenin died; the glue was brutality and fear, but it was glue nonetheless. The pressing thought when he died was What will become of us? which was a legitimate question although one that couldn’t be expressed openly. Papa Joe, which he was somewhat ironically nicknamed, had projected an image of paternal caring and love, even though people were dreadfully afraid of the NKVD (which became he KGB) and of Lavrenti Beria’s network of informants who ferreted out any dissent and brought dissenters to horrifying ends.
So for the occasion of Stalin’s funeral, the remaining central committee members wanted a show of epic pageantry that would on the one hand allow the country to mourn and to also reassure the people that the business of government would continue as it had been. A lavish spectacle was planned, with the dictator lying in state in the Hall of the Unions in Moscow before a massive funeral in Red Square. All of it would be captured for posterity by hundreds of cameras documenting not only the main festivities in Moscow but also local and regional memorials from all over the vast Soviet Union.
Belarus-born documentary filmmaker Sergey Loznitsa (who is currently based in Germany) went through more than forty hours of footage and narrowed it down to two and a half hours. The footage has been digitally enhanced, looking as clean and crisp as the day it was shot. As a historical document, it is priceless; as a cultural document, it is fascinating, giving a rare glimpse inside the USSR which we largely didn’t see much of in the West other than propaganda. Well, of course, this is largely meant to be propaganda (I’ll get into that in a moment) but it has been skillfully edited to present much more of an objective picture.
Loznitsa eschews conventional narration, utilizing instead what was broadcast over the ubiquitous loudspeakers throughout the Soviet Union – glorifications of the Communist movement, glorifications of the Soviet Union and of course glorifications the dear departed, reinforcing his public image as a paternal figure. The soundtrack is enhanced with sounds of shuffling feet, wails of lamentation, and other ambient sounds. It is the images of the people filing past the coffin that will stay with me though; the working class, ordinary folk whose faces look numb. Is it grief? Or is it relief that perhaps things will get better with Stalin gone? If it was the latter, there’s no way to ever know – even were interviews to be conducted back then, nobody would admit to it for fear of ending up in one of Beria’s prisons, or with a gun pressed to their temples.
We have the benefit of viewing this film, like any other historical document, with hindsight. Even though most American audiences will not recognize most of the people in the film, they were the most powerful Soviets of their day, as well as high-ranking communists from all over the globe. I suspect a good many of them won’t be recognized even in Russia, nor would the irony of a massive funeral celebrating a man who murdered tens of millions of his countrymen be recognized in a land presided over by Putin, who has borrowed some of Stalin’s tactics.
It might be hard on some to sit through endless shots of people filing past a coffin – and that takes up an awful lot of the film, but trust me, this isn’t a boring or repetitive film in the least. As a country that is battling some tendencies towards authoritarianism ourselves, this is a cautionary tale to say the least. A cult of personality can thrive here. We’ve seen it done. If we want to see the aftermath of one, we can do worse than to look at this film…and remember it.
REASONS TO SEE: The Soviet propaganda machine in full flower. The images are surprisingly crisp and clean and often breathtaking in scope. The numb expressions of the common people is very telling. Makes terrific use of sound.
REASONS TO AVOID: A very long time to watch a funeral.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some images of Stalin’s corpse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stalin died on March 5, 1953 from complications arising from a massive stroke suffered two days earlier.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: MUBI
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Death of Stalin
FINAL RATING: 9/10
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