Cult of Personality

One of the the best movies I’ve seen in EVER is The Death of Stalin: A Comedy of Terrors. True, you need a very dark sense of humor. It might even help to deepen your appreciation if you have lived some of your life under totalitarianism. Admittedly, my little venture into totalitarianism was brief and mostly happy, but I definitely got the big picture on what it is and means.

The film shows — in an almost factual way — the last night of Stalin’s life and ensuing events. The focus of the film is on the central committee, its fears, rivalries and corruption. The humor is grimly slapstick. The committee is brilliantly played by a bunch of actors I don’t know and two I do — Michael Palin and Steve Buscemi. The director is Armando Iannucci about whom I know nothing except this film is a masterpiece.

One of the puzzling things to me about history is that the entire burden of stories of atrocities against humanity during the 20th century rests on Hitler, somewhat unfairly. It’s suspected that more than 20 million people were killed under Stalin’s leadership. How could a funny movie be made about this? I’m not going to tell you. The film isn’t for everyone, but I laughed out loud several times.

The Death of Stalin carries a meta-message warning of the dangers of personality cults. Like Chairman Mao, Stalin was a real (not merely hyped) hero and beloved by his people (many? most? some?) but for thirty years, he maintained his power through death lists, sycophantic followers and an ignorant public. One revelatory (and darkly funny) scene shows Stalin lying on the floor unconscious in his Dacha. The committee cannot figure out what to do. When they finally decide to bring in a doctor, one of them says despairingly, “But all of the good doctors are dead or in gulags…”

10 thoughts on “Cult of Personality

  1. Mass murder seems to be one of our basic urges. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years and we tend to forget the earlier ones in favor of the more recent ones, though the ones that take place in less well-known parts of the world never get fully mentioned at all. It’s why I wonder if we really CAN work together. We certainly haven’t shown any propensity to do it. It doesn’t come naturally to us … but slaughter does. I keep looking through what I know of the world history for some sign that somewhere, humans made a serious effort to cooperate, collectively, even when they didn’t agree about everything. And I do NOT mean in legend, but in whatever we know to be fact.

  2. I don’t know of any of the great mass-murders who weren’t beloved of some of their people. They couldn’t stay in power if they were not.

    It comes down to clever manipulation of a larger group against a smaller group. You never attack a majority,, you use that majority to expel a troublesome minority from those who count as human beings. Once a group has been expelled from those who count politically, you only need a majority of the remainder to stay in power. Each time you shave off another minority, the remainder grows ever more monolithic in thought and support, making our happy despot ever more secure.

    The sick part of humanity is that we can be filled with relief that we aren’t in the out-group and self-satisfaction when we are part of the in-group. We don’t learn from history because it is an inconvenient lesson. Doesn’t matter which tinpot dictator you are talking about. Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Sadaam….

    First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

    Because I was not a socialist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
    Because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

  3. Satire can go to some dark places and leave you laughing so you don’t despair. The Taiko Waititi satire, Jojo Rabbit, has also just been released. It is about Hitler youth and blind nationalism. I find his films contain such warmth and pathos.

  4. Thanks for the pointer; something new to see. People who lived through the Cultural Revolution refuse to talk of Mao, although much younger Chinese seem to have an occasional nice thing to say about his calligraphy or resistance war days. I wonder about Stalin.

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