LAUGHING IN THE FACE OF TERROR
The subversive underground tradition of joke telling is not just a brave response to terror, but a profoundly spiritual one
Lovers of British comedy might like to imagine Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, The Fast Show and The Thick of it mashed together and cooked by Armando Iannucci. Sounds great – until you hear the subject matter is Stalin’s Soviet Union.
The Death of Stalin, on cinema release in October 2017, shouldn’t work, not just because it is a very British satire about a strange and foreign culture, but because the theme is so profoundly difficult and unsettling. And yet it does.
Those who sat through the screen adaptation of Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 will be relieved to know there is no cod-Russian brogue on display, like a corny Meerkat advert. Instead there is a polyphony of misplaced accents: cockney (Paul Whitehouse, after all), Brooklyn, Californian and, most memorably, Jason Isaacs hamming up Soviet army supremo General Zhukov in a blunt Yorkshire dialect.
This is an intensely political film which manages to blend satire with horror without dishonouring the victims of Stalin or disobliging the humour. People are rounded up in the dead of night from their poky apartments, tortured in the Lubyanka and summarily shot. There are strong indications of Lavrenti Beria’s monstrous evil and obscenity as chief of the NKVD (the KGB’s forerunner). There is no minimising the chilling insanity of Stalin’s regime but the culture which the Soviet Communist Party leadership generated is mercilessly pilloried. The Politburo is replete with vain, cowardly, brutal, narcissistic and absurdly-drawn characters; the seed bed of state terror.
In the old Soviet Union, this portrayal would have represented the deepest blasphemy. People were sent to the Gulag for the merest hint of disloyalty; more microscopic-aggression than micro-aggression. Yet this did not inhibit a rich seam of Soviet satire, a whispered oral tradition which has survived and shed light on the capacity of ordinary Soviet citizens to name the countless absurdities. The bravery on display was incalculable.
Soviet communism believed it had deposed God by murdering clergy and dynamiting churches. Yet the subversive underground tradition of joke telling was not merely a courageous response to the terror but a profoundly spiritual one. The Book of Esther is one long, darkly-constructed narrative of comedic resistance to genocide. In Psalm 2, the ‘kings of the earth…and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord’. But ‘he who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision’. So, it might be added, do those who resist in the name of truth on earth. Comedy is a shared heavenly calling.
George Orwell once said: ‘The bigger the fall, the bigger the joke. It would be better fun to throw a custard pie at a bishop than at a curate’. There is an unconscious echo of Mary’s poem here, where God has ‘brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly’. Stalin’s Terror traumatised generations, yet there has been no proper, State-led accounting for the wanton barbarism visited on the people in whose name he and his cohort supposedly acted.
It is only a cheap contribution in the scheme of things, but there is something richly satisfying about the monumental custard pie thrown in the face of Stalin and his men by this film. It is, in the tradition of satire, of transient interest. Yet, in the spirit of Jesus Christ, may have a more lasting value we cannot price in a world where truth is stolen to serve idolatry.
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