Western audiences are accustomed to images of Stalin as a terrifying despot and mass murderer; now that his reputation has been rehabilitated under Putin, Russian audiences are used to seeing Stalin as an almighty leader who brought the USSR to victory over the Nazis. The idea of presenting a comedy about Stalin to either of these audiences is startling. Critics on both sides of the crumpled Iron Curtain have expressed disgust at its willingness to laugh at such a dark subject, but many viewers have been delighted. In considering the laughter that The Death of Stalin produces and portrays, it’s important to remember that laughter comes in many varieties: giddy, aggressive, delighted, sycophantic, relieved, sadistic, mirthful, embarrassed, subversive. Laughter is a sophisticated tool that can convey meanings unavailable to the strictly serious-minded.
As I watched The Death of Stalin, I thought of Soviet literary critic Viktor Shklovsky’s famous theory of ostranenie, or “enstrangement,” the artistic device that gives us a new understanding of the familiar by making us see it as if for the first time. By disrupting habits of perception that have become automatic, ostranenie allows us to reach a new understanding, a sharper feeling. I saw The Death of Stalin with a friend, a Jewish refugee from Soviet Moscow, and together we alternated between hysterical laughter and gasps of horror at the scenes of people being taken away in the night or summarily shot. The laughter made the horror seem new.
A useful way of thinking!