We try to go to our local cinema in the town on a fairly regular basis as we wish to give it our support. Like many small communities we are loosing many of our services as they are concentrated in the cities and larger towns where the economies of scale make them viable. So we go regularly, not because we are film buffs (though we do enjoy cinema), but to try and keep up the audience numbers. It will be another thing certain to disappear in the near future.
The car and personal transport led to the decline of public transport systems; the railway has long gone and the bus services are very rudimentary. Shopping malls and internet shopping have decimated the local towns shops. Internet banking is now taking the banks and building societies away from the small towns and, at the moment, plasma televisions, film streaming and on-demand viewing are banging the last nails of the coffin of our local cinema.
Therefore on a cold Friday night in January we joined the six others who made up the audience to see the latest film on offer. Including the two staff on the evening the number of people just, and only just, made it into double figures ! The cinema itself is pleasant, the seats are comfortable, the screen is large, the sound is state of the art and the prices are reasonable. The film we saw was also very good, but I fear our hopes of saving our cinema are rather forlorn.
The film was saw was The Death of Stalin by Armando Iannucci. This is a comedy and political satire based on the events surrounding the death of Stalin and the consequent scramble for power after his demise. The script is historically accurate and the tensions and power-plays of the time are used to good comedic effect. In the early part of the film the difficulties of knowing Stalin are well shown, how do you live with a paranoid psychopath who has total power ? The feelings of tension and fear that this would engender are skilfully drawn. The acting is first class and it was a wise move to forgo using Russian accents as it left a natural feel to the performances and allowed some excellent comedy turns (especially Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov). It was a pity there were only eight of us in the auditorium to enjoy it.
However, after the film I noticed I had a nagging doubt. There had been nothing amiss with the acting, direction or production and, as I said above, the script was extremely funny. The anxieties of some of the characters was revealed but there was a huge gaping hole in the story. The experience of Soviet citizens living through this nightmare. Although there were scenes which alluded to the terror, these were slight and almost dismissed at times. The assassinations, the firing squads, the tortures, the secret police, the destruction of families, the corruption and the sexual abuse were there but only on the edge of the frame.
While recognising that this was a comedy I can see why many would say that there is no need to spend time on the horrors of totalitarianism. But would we have made a film of this nature about the difficulties of power battles in the Nazi high command ? Would we have had a comedy character for Mengele ? Lavrentiy Beria was at least Mengele’s equal. Stalin introduced him as “our Himmler“, at the Yalta Conference, and he would not allow his daughter to be alone with this known sadist, rapist and mass murderer. This man was the head of the dreaded NKVD which organized the terror which engulfed Russia and he was also responsible for the ethnic cleansing which followed after the Second World War. Is this really a suitable subject for a skit?
It is surprising that we have quite clear double standards when we look back at the atrocities in our recent past. We have no difficulty in condemning the horrors of Nazi Germany but seem to have a blind spot when we remember the horrors which arise from the left field : the horror of the Gulags, the horror of the cultural revolution in China, or the horror of the killing fields in Cambodia. The totalitarianism of the left has not been kinder than that of the right nor has it been less industrious. They are equally responsible for mass murder and abuse. The House of Terror, established in 2002 by Maria Schmidt in Hungary reminds us of this fact lest we forget. So, although I concur that this is a well-made and successful satire, I was left feeling uncomfortable as I am not entirely convinced that life under Stalin was a laughing matter.