The Death of Stalin is probably playing at a theater somewhere near you. I can’t remember a more widely praised comedy/satire (trailer below). Everyone loves it, including John Podhoretz, my favorite movie critic. Unlike most of the critics, however, John writes with a reservation: “I can’t praise The Death of Stalin highly enough . . . except that it gets really boring after a while.” I found that to be perfectly accurate. For me, however, it was a very short while (maybe six minutes).
Completely apart from the merits of the movie, John’s review is worth reading for its final two paragraphs. Please do not miss them. Stalin lives!
To me the comedy felt labored and the movie something of an in joke. The jokes, I thought to myself, are “jokes.” The film presumed a level of knowledge that flattered its audience, but I wondered, how many viewers would understand “jokes” based on the doctors’ plot killings and then see the humor in the “jokes”? I also thought the acting was forced.
Then there is the question of taste. Having read the history and the memoirs of the period, I recoiled from the farcical treatment of the subject matter. I have not read anything that touches on this question. I wondered as I sat there how Mel Brooks might have done it. With a little help from a silly song or two, I am sure.
Restless in my boredom, I reflected. After reading Robert Conquest’s groundbreaking history The Great Terror and the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago in the early 1970’s, I read all the memoirs of life under Stalin that I could get my hands on. Among them were Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope, Lev Navrozov’s The Education of Lev Navrozov, Alexander Dolgun’s Alexander Dolgun’s Story: An American in the Gulag, Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko’s The Time of Stalin, and others. These moving books provided an education. They opened my eyes.
I also thought of two excellent works of history: Jonathan Brent’s Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors and Joshua Rubinstein’s The Last Days of Stalin.
The subject of Stalin is of permanent interest and continuing relevance. Nicholas Eberstadt draws on his knowledge of the Stalinist model of totalitarian tyranny to understand North Korea. By contrast with the time I spent seated at The Death of Stalin, I found Bill Kristol’s recent interview of Eberstadt (below) to be worth every minute of my time (the text of the interview is posted here). Eberstadt knows what he is talking about and, like so many AEI fellows past and present, should be on an elite university faculty somewhere teaching the next generation of leaders. He is a great teacher.