Why don't the Russians smile like Stalin?

Laughing at Stalin: "The Death of Stalin"

Even the opening sequence is terrific and sums up the horrors of the Stalin era. A symphony orchestra gives a classical concert, Josef Stalin is involved, listens in and is impressed. After the performance is over, Stalin calls the director of the concert hall and requests a recording. But oh dear, you forgot to record the concert on record. So what to do

The manager of the house rushed to try to urge the audience, some of which have already left the hall, to stay. The concert has to be played again in its entirety, from the first note on. And with the same sound in the house. This is only possible if the half-empty rows of spectators are filled with passers-by from the street. The conductor and pianist have to be persuaded to play an entire symphonic concert a second time - this time with a recording.

You don't provoke a dictator ...

This is the only way to ensure that Stalin receives a real audio document as quickly as possible. Otherwise ... yes, what would happen otherwise?

We are in 1953, the rule of the dictator Stalin demands sacrifices every day. Anyone who is not one hundred percent on the line will be arrested, kidnapped, murdered. Nobody wants to risk that, not even the confused audience and musicians in the concert hall. You don't provoke a dictator ...

The fallen dictator lies on the floor - the inner circle of power is eyeing each other

"The Death of Stalin" is an angry political satire about one of the most brutal reigns of terror of the 20th century. A movie that is based on historically guaranteed facts, shows them only slightly changed and thus merges history and comedy, history and the grotesque in a grandiose manner.

Scottish director Armando Iannucci is responsible for the film - in addition to the authors, producers and a great cast of actors: "The more you find out about these true events, the more they appear as farce." Iannucci is a specialist in political satire, including being responsible for the "Veep" series, which has won several Emmys, about the everyday life of a US Vice President.

Director Iannucci: "Viewers get access to the story."

For him it wasn't just about an over-the-top comedy with silly jokes, says the director: "I think the following applies to comedies: the more authentic events and details you can incorporate, the funnier it gets." And all the more likely the viewers would ask themselves whether that actually happened - and give themselves the answer: "Yes, that could actually have happened. In this way, the viewers gain access to the story."

Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale, left) is the most powerful man in 1953, Georgi Malenkow (Jeffrey Tambor) a puppet

After the opening sequence, "The Death of Stalin" mainly describes the hours and days after Stalin's stroke in early March 1953. Who will take power after his death? How do you deal with Stalin's legacy? Do the hawks or the doves prevail in the Kremlin - and what then happens to the other side?

Iannucci, who made his film on the basis of a French graphic novel, gathers the Kremlin's inner circle of power on the screen: Nikita Khrushchev, who will ultimately win, Lavrenti Beria, the feared head of the secret service, Central Committee Secretary Georgi Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, close confidante of the dictator and later foreign minister, finally General Georgi Schukow, who had accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945, but had been demoted shortly before Stalin's death. And then there are Stalin's daughter and his son. They all fight for the best starting position after the expected demise of the dictator.

Walking a tightrope between comedy and tragedy

With all its grotesque scenery and absurd comedy, "The Death of Stalin" does not hide what it was all about when Stalin was dying: "I wanted the audience to be reminded that the actions and decisions of these characters had a devastating effect on this People had, "says the director. He knew that he and his team had to be very respectful of the facts: "The fact that millions of people were killed or disappeared." This fact could neither be avoided, "nor can it be conveyed in a joke. The viewer has to be aware of this fact in every moment of the film."

Stalin's son Vasily (center) turns out to be a drunkard, next to him Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi)

And what does the film tell us today about the events that took place decades ago? "'The Death of Stalin' may be set over sixty years ago," says Iannucci, "but it offers some sobering lessons about today's political landscape." He had first talks about the film three years ago, "when nobody saw Brexit or Trump coming". At that time he deliberately looked for a topic that "had to do with dictatorship, with authoritarianism and with how a country can be terrorized by a person, even though the person is not even charismatic, but simply by exploiting concepts such as groupthink."

Was that one of the reasons that "The Death of Stalin" was banned in Russia in January shortly before the announced theatrical release (after only two screenings)? The film was a mockery and abomination, a plot by the West to destabilize Russia, the Russian Ministry of Culture said. Several Duma members had previously described the film as unsustainable and called for a ban.

What does the film ban say about Russia today?

A dictator who has millions of people on his conscience, who is responsible for displacing millions and who set up gulags across the board, must not be ridiculed? What does that say about today's censors in Russia?

The movie posters for "The Death of Stalin" have already been hung in Russia

Making fun of dictators, especially through the means of cinema, can be a difficult artistic endeavor for several reasons. Of course, it cannot be assumed that the current ban on "The Death of Stalin" in Russia was made out of respect for the victims. At least one has not heard this explanation from Moscow.

But the German audience will remember that it wasn't too long ago that, for various reasons, you couldn't just make funny and silly films about Hitler, Goebbels and Co. Laughing at Hitler - that was (and is) a subject that can certainly be argued about.

Films like "Mein F├╝hrer - die really truest truth about Adolf Hitler" (2007) by Dani Levy or David Wnendt's "Er ist wieder da" (2015) are even more recent, Germany is meanwhile ready to allow such cinematic and comedic balancing act deal with them. Russia is apparently not ready yet. The arguments for the pros and cons of such films may be different - but a little humility in this debate would also be good for the German audience.

More about the Stalin grotesque in the cinema in the current issue of KINO by Deutsche Welle. It also includes reports on the classic children's book adaptation "JIM KNOPF UND LUKAS THE LOCOMOTIVE LEADER" as well as a memory of Martin Luther King in film history.