State Funeral


Pomp and circumstance for a despot.

(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 As a historical document, it is priceless; as a cultural document, it is fascinating, giving a rare glimpse inside the USSR which we largely didn’t see much of in the West other than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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Welcome Matt

The Death of Stalin


Stalin has the literal last laugh.

(2017) Comedy/Satire (IFC) Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Olga Kurylenko, Jason Isaacs, Paddy Considine, Paul Chahidi, Adrian McLoughlin, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Richard Brake, Dermot Crowley, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Paul Whitehouse, Cara Horgan, Karl Johnson, Diana Quick, Jonathan Aris, Dave Wong, Eva Sayer. Directed by Armando Iannucci

 

While history is often written by the victorious and comes from that point of view, there are some things that transcend opinion. For one, tyrants like Hitler and in this particular case, Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union, were homicidal monsters who are to be reviled rather than revered. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good for a laugh or two

Stalin (McLoughlin) barely makes an appearance in the film; he has his life-ending cerebral hemorrhage about 20 minutes into the film, but his presence hangs over the entire proceeding as a power struggle develops between secret police chief Lavrenti Beria (Beale) and the politically canny Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi). The rest of the central committee, including the spine-challenged Georgy Malenkov (Tambor) and the flip-flopping Vyacheslav Molotov (Palin) are busy scrambling to make sure they don’t get caught in the fallout that is sure to come once one of their number assumes control of the Soviet Union.

While the movie compresses a period of about three years into a few days (the final denouement which is shown here to take place shortly after the funeral actually occurred three years after Stalin was laid to rest), the historical facts as we can come by them seem to be pretty accurate. That the movie is based on a French graphic novel makes that a bit astounding but in this era of fake news and bald-faced lies that come from our own politicians, not surprising.

Buscemi has always been something of an underrated comic performer but this might be his best role yet. He plays Khrushchev as paranoid and somewhat high-strung, relating funny stories from the siege of Stalingrad including one of sticking a private’s finger in warm water in order to cause him to wet himself which turns out to be somewhat ironic since Stalin himself would shortly do exactly that (which is historically accurate; the hemorrhage caused him to lose control of his bladder).

Iannucci has created such spot-on satires as the HBO series Veep and the seminal British show The Thick of It but while those tend to be somewhat harder edged than Stalin he manages to concoct a story that is both timely and of a specific time simultaneously. We here in the West understand that being near the top of the political heap in the old Soviet Union was inherently dangerous to life and limb and we pat ourselves on the back to say “it was never like that here” but then we look at the current White House and its revolving door and wonder if it wasn’t a lot more similar than we think.

There are some moments of wonderful nonsense, such as when Beria and Khrushchev (neither one of whom are particularly athletic) racing through the woods of Stalin’ s dacha in order to be the first to greet his daughter Svetlana (Riseborough), or when war hero Grand Marshall Zhukov (Isaacs), then in charge of the Red Army, arrives at the Kremlin dripping with medals and roaring “What does it take for a soldier to get lubricated around here?”

Not everyone will find this funny. The Russians have banned this movie, claiming that it was insulting to Russian history which I suppose it is – if the Russians did a satire on the death of President Kennedy I suppose we wouldn’t be laughing much either. But then again, Putin has a lot more in common with Stalin than Trump has with JFK and I don’t doubt that those who are Trump supporters may find this to be a thinly veiled dig at their hero. I don’t think it is in particular, but parallels can certainly be glimpsed.

Da Queen found the film to be a bit long-winded and she has a point. I also have to point out that I was laughing out loud hysterically the first time I saw it but the second time I saw it with Da Queen it wasn’t quite as funny. That may mean that it won’t lend itself to repeated viewings although comedies rarely do. However, the first viewing really got me into the somewhat anarchic and zany world that Iannucci created and while it may not have been too laugh-inspiring at the time, at least today we can look back on it and see the humor – not so much in the situation but in how we react to it.

REASONS TO GO: Much of it is hysterically funny. Buscemi is at the top of his game. The dialogue is wickedly funny. Those who love Monty Python are going to enjoy this.
REASONS TO STAY: The subject matter may make laughter a somewhat uncomfortable reaction. It’s a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is consistent profanity, adult themes, violence (some of it graphic), sexual references and intimations of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was banned in Russia, two days before it was due to be released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monty Python’s Life of Brian
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
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La Familia