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July 21st, 2018

Now Playing in Burlington: The Death of Stalin: ****

Max’s Views

Now Playing in Burlington- The Death of Stalin: ****

Most everyone knows that the Soviet Union was a nightmarish place to live.

I’m not sure people know exactly why, though.

I don’t have enough room here to list all the atrocities, but the forced collectivization of agriculture was one of the worst.

In 1929, the Soviet Politburo announced the mass collectivization of agriculture. Successful capitalist peasants – labeled Kulaks – were not invited to join. The Kulaks were marched off to work camps or killed.

For the remaining peasants, collectivization was nearly as bad. With the best farmers gone, the large State farms were run by city bureaucrats. The bureaucrats knew a lot about Das Kapital but nothing about das wheat.

Inevitably, grain production plummeted. Farmers were still expected to ship the same amount of food to the city party leaders, though, and the USSR continued to export grain to fund its industrialization projects.

The farmers themselves received a smaller share of a shrinking bounty. The communists’ perverse experiment led to a man-made famine that killed 5 to 7 million peasants.

The hardest thing for us to believe about this horror story is that the architects of this mass murder were regular human beings like us. Soviet leaders were just people – with feelings and families and fears. And funny bones.

“The Death of Stalin” is a delightful, charming, audacious comedy about a few funny weeks in Soviet Russia.

It is 1953 and fearsome dictator Joseph Stalin just had a massive stroke. Nobody knows for sure how sick he is because all of the best doctors have been sent to the Gulag. But the leading members of the Politburo have already begun to jockey for position in the new government. And every human weakness and frailty is on display.

Ruthless Beria is letting political prisoners free with hopes of currying favor with the people (even though he’s the one who put them in prison to begin with).

Halfwit Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) has been named interim leader. One minute he’s drunk with his new power and ordering people around; the next minute he looks like a deer in headlights because he’s overwhelmed by the job.

Poor Molotov (Michael Palin) is too traumatized by the madness of the Stalin era to move on. It’s darkly funny to hear Molotov earnestly condemn his wife as a traitor even though he has no clue why Stalin arrested her.

There is definitely no hero to this story. But the closest thing we’ve got is Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev. He’s the only one who fully understands what is going on. This is not a battle of communist vs. capitalist or good vs. evil. Politics is about building a coalition by any means necessary. It’s fun to watch a perpetually frazzled Khrushchev convince, cajole and bully all the idiots in the Kremlin.

Writer/director Armando Ianucci (HBO’s “Veep”) has made the most inspired comedy of the year. It combines the witty wordplay of early Woody Allen with the anarchic slapstick of The Marx Brothers.

Mark Twain theorized that “humor is tragedy plus time.” “The Death of Stalin” proves it once and for all. I love this movie. See it if you can.

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