A lot of people have been down to the cinema to have a chuckle at some Communists in the middle of a panic. So far, so unremarkable - but some people don’t like that we’re having a laugh. Specifically, some people don’t like that we’re having a laugh about Joseph Stalin. Peter Hitchens wrote a piece about why our enjoyment of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is in terribly bad taste and that we should read Billy Liar instead.
The core of Hitchens’s argument is that Stalin was a mass murderer and so shouldn’t be made fun of. The fact that Stalin’s brutal reign of terror was soaked in the blood of innocent people is not in doubt. Neither is the fact that he is one of biggest monsters of the 20th century’s, if not of all time.
A comedy about the Rwandan genocide or the Ethiopian famine would be in poor taste, even if it was written by one of the greatest living satirists. On the other hand, a film making fun of Napoleon or Vlad the Impaler would be fine - so long as it was actually funny. I can’t imagine people protesting outside London’s art house cinemas or writing huffy Mail Online columns about violent despots from centuries ago.
Where do you draw the line as to what history is too recent or too tragic to be made fun of? Everyone’s answer will be different, and so there will be disagreements about whether a particular film, book or TV show is in bad taste. Where there are disagreements, it’s worth us having a conversation.
In the spirt of having a conversation about The Death of Stalin, I would like to say that this film is not only very funny, but also it will open peoples’ eyes to what life was like in the USSR under Stalin. No one can watch this film and think that Stalinism or the Soviet Union’s particular take on Marxism was good. The real-life characters in this film are motivated by greed and paranoia, and they show a casual disregard for life that is chilling.
These people were so focused on their own survival and thirst for power that they allowed huge numbers of people to be beaten, raped, tortured and killed. This film exposes the terror of Stalin and the complacency of those in his inner circle. It is good that it was made and that lots of people are going to see it so that we can remember Stalin’s crimes and thereby prevent such a thing from ever happening again.
This film is clearly good entertainment and it is making history more accessible to a mass audience. So why is Hitchens so upset about it? There is something else going on in the words of Hitchens. There is a dog-whistle being blown here. It is found in Hitchens’s assertion that there hasn’t been a tragic film about how awful life under Stalin was. He laments that “Hitler’s crimes have been repeatedly explored in mass-market TV series, and major fictional films without number. But the equivalent documentaries and dramas about Stalin have yet to be made.”
Hitchens is suggesting that it is because of the left/liberal dominance in the media and arts that we don’t have a Schindler’s List for Stalin’s terror. Hitchens states: “fashionable showbiz persons [read: lefties] still can’t grasp that Stalin (Left-wing) was just as evil as Hitler (Right-wing).”
His implication is that the crimes of Stalin have been ignored by lefties because they don’t want to criticise him too much as they feel some sympathy with his cause and, on some level, justify his terror. Hitchens wants us to think that there are scripts about how awful Stalin was that are being passed over for production because lefties in the media are worried that if we start criticising Stalin then the unthinking masses will see what’s wrong with the entire left from Hillary Clinton to Slavoj Zizek, and go rushing into the arms of the Mail on Sunday.
Think for a second about all the Schindler’s Lists about Stalin that have been strangled in their cribs because lefty sensibilities don’t want to hear criticism of the Soviet Union, a criticism we can’t bear because at the end of the day Communism was a good idea even if it was terribly executed. In Hitchens’s view, lefties think mass murder must be excused so that they can feel smugly superior to Christians when they are homophobic.
Hitchens says that Hollywood has always been ambivalent towards Stalin and “that ambivalence goes back to Hollywood’s flirtation with Communism in the wartime 1940s,” when “Hollywood was soft on Stalin”. Maybe it was back in the 1940s, when Stalin was in our good books after helping us defeat Hitler. It wasn’t just the left that was “soft of Stalin” immediately post World War Two.
Off the top of my head, I can think of films such as the Enemy at the Gates, which does show how bad Stalingrad was and how little the Red Army cared for its conscripts. This film starring Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and Ed Harris is not better known because, in short, it’s not very good.
Hitchens is right that there’s no Schindler’s List for Stalin and his victims. There’s also no Schindler’s List about the Indonesian mass killings. The fact that this piece of history doesn’t even have a proper noun, let alone a heart-wrenching slice of Hollywood Oscar-bait perhaps could be because the victims were Communists, or because in the West we don’t care about what happens in Indonesia?
A lot of history’s tragedies (recent and past) have not had the mainstream Hollywood treatment. The fact that Hollywood thinks there is money and Oscars (and Oscars just mean more money from DVD sales as you can put “winner of 5 Oscars on the box”) in a particular historic tragedy does not make it more or less of tragic than any other piece of history, and commentators obsessed with the masonic control that liberal Hollywood has over popular culture would do well to remember this.
I don’t know whether the general liberal persuasion of Hollywood has prevented there being a Schindler’s List for Stalin. My suspicion is that if Hollywood thought there would be money in it, their political beliefs wouldn’t stop them from making a film about it.
What is certain is that many people on the left, including the far left, deplore Stalinism and the terror of his bloody regime. In all my years on the political left, I have never heard anyone trying to defend Stalin or justify what he did. To imply that all liberals are secret apologists for Stalin is to twist reality to the perspective of paranoid conspiracy.
Hitchens is telling us that we shouldn’t have a chuckle in the cinema because “laughter is not necessarily an expression of happiness or delight. It is often an expression of conformism and almost invariably an attempt to identify with others.” Laughter can be an expression of astonishment or disbelief at the absurd actions of others, which has been the basis of satire and farce for centuries, and is the basis of much of the humour in The Death of Stalin.
Stop your virtue signalling conformity and read Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore instead. Then read Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs to divest yourself of any silly liberal ideas. Stop laughing at the back. Don’t you know what’s good for you?