Words by Lewis Orr
Josef Stalin was a famous Russian leader who is remembered for committing genocide. It makes you think of cars, soldiers next to the Winter Palace, the Great Fatherland War, the big red Marxist banners, and all the war and blaze that follows his name in everyone’s minds.
So you’re sitting on a seat in the Social Sciences Lecture Theater near Oak Lawn, the rain is thundering outside, and it is extremely cold. There’s a massive Spotify page splashed in front of you on the lecture screen and massive Slav doof-doof can be heard through speakers, then a bit of Russian hardstyle. You’re not entirely sure what you’re here for. This is an event that mixes two of UWA’s finest societies: “UWA Film Society x UWA Slav Society”. This was not a combination you expected, but nonetheless, you came.
There is a nice vibe in this land. Everyone is talking, there is food, a few loud voices, and they are all kind. The film finally starts after much delay, for everyone is just that keen to talk to each other. You’re sitting near the front, a bit apart from the rest, and the world is just passing you by.
The film begins. Shall we say it’s not a bad flick? There is a mixture of English comedy, historical grandeur, and the music of Mozart, which bookends the film. These things are enough to motivate you to watch, and you think back to those days when the leaves fell all tangled in the autumn under the red sunlight outside your window in those beige classrooms, where you were taught Russian history. You were in those rooms many years ago. Since then much has changed. Every fine film will send you back into the land of memories. We might say this is the telos of art: activating the daydreams within you. You think of the past, the good and bad things, and what you will try to do differently in the future.
You notice the face of that American actor. If you watch the film, this refers to Nikita Khrushchev’s character. This is a strange face, and you’ve seen it before… in Fargo, not the TV show but the legendary movie. You’re trying to work out the actor’s name. This is another element of watching a film: placing the actors in the different facets you know of their lives. Will Smith hit Chris Rock at the Oscars, and now it’s not the same watching shots from his films. It’s not as easy to separate the actor from the role.
To return to the film. Death of Stalin is a very metafictional movie that incorporates a comedic element in that the actors are very non-Russian, and speak with heavy non-Russian accents. They are largely English and North American. The film asks you to consider the external lives of these actors. This raises a lot of questions about the meaning of the film. Is it simply a dark comedy? It is not a historical discourse, at least not all the time. We have too many comedic moments and not enough discussion of the events as they happened for this to be true. However, there is a tad of moralizing. The film’s ultimate view is that absolute power is morally deleterious, and those who follow Stalin were, in the end, no different in their violent and deceitful efforts to take control. This is the film’s great sleight of hand; Beria is not the true villain, but Nikita Khrushchev, who the film shows to seize power in an illegitimate way, and who falls short of his moral promises. It’s not a bad performance by this lead actor. For the life of me, I can’t remember his name.