“You’re the Good Guy Now?”: The Violent Switch in Death of Stalin (2017)

A companion piece to my earlier post
(“It’s So Nice to Finally Meet You”: The ‘What If’ in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood)

Similar to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Death of Stalin plays with our expectations and understanding of history. While Tarantino’s film focuses on the build up to trauma, Death of Stalin finds a new way to frame the aftermath of violence and suppression. Although much of the film deals with violence, the film itself is not that violent. Much of its violent content is simply discussed or insinuated, and its few moments of violence are brief or even comical.

It is a dark and satirical comedy, one which does an excellent job of balancing humor with a traumatic subject. It keeps its audience laughing until it switches, leaving the viewer with a bleak and sudden sensation. Yes, these characters are entertaining and have good one-liners, but they also destroy countless people in the film.

While much of the film seems like an exaggeration, there is a point at which this switches. The extreme violence discussed by these men really happened. As a result, a lot of the comedy in these scenes comes from an uncomfortable place, where we are not certain where the line between fiction and nonfiction arrives. A good example of this tension is when Beria is executed. His trial is chaotic and horrific, and it lacks the comedy of earlier scenes. We hear his crimes and just how extreme and numerous the charges are. There is shouting and screaming, and it all ends with a very sudden gun shot. Then, everything gets quiet, and we are left to reflect on the legacy (or the purposeful lack thereof) of these men, and the nameless people they destroyed.

By switching from comedy to drama, the film resonates far more than it could have as a straightforward drama. Comedy involves its audience in a unique way, as it asks the viewer to laugh along and become invested in the story. We pay attention because we are always looking for a punchline. When the film reveals that this is a literal punchline, its viewer is still involved with the subject. Because we are consistently switching between laughter and realization, our relationship with the film is purposefully complicated.

This is why the Death of Stalin is so effective, as it is not just a film about history, but a contemporary reflection on what it means to be a part of history and to be removed from it. Like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, this destruction is left for the audience to imagine and contemplate. It leaves us with a melancholic and empty feeling, and in doing so, shows us historic violence in a new and sustained way.

Rather than distancing its subject, the film brings it close to us using comedy. It does so to effectively ask the viewer to reconsider how we view history. It emphasizes the importance of paying attention to history by illustrating that the past is heavily curated, and its most uncomfortable and violent parts are often rewritten.

The film is essentially a close reading on history and truth. For example, because it switches between comedy and drama, it gestures the two-sided nature of these men and how history is made up of different perspectives. As such, both its subject and form contribute to the film’s discussion on unseen and rewritten violence.

Like its characters, those who eliminate people and names, the film never shows its true victims. However, the way the film switches still gestures to the empty space in which these victims once occupied. This means that although the film does not include all the violence it mentions, it still draws our attention to it while also troubling our notions of truth, the unseen or untold, and history.