Should we laugh at evil?


Theodor Ardano had once famously written, “After Auschwitz, no poetry”.  One can understand the sentiment even today. But there is poetry. And there is comedy. But not about Auschwitz, of course.

I’m finally watching the recent surprise comedy hit (or a niche comedy hit) “The Death of Stalin”.

It is a strange movie. Or at least an unlikely one. To make a movie like this of any genre presupposes an audience which knows a thing or two about its subject matter, its era and its characters so as to appreciate it more fully; not just Stalin himself, about whom most intelligent movie goers have at least heard, but also the cast of supporting personalities: Beria, Khrushchev, Molotov, Malenkov, Mikoyan. Perhaps even  more so if a movie is a comedy, which tends to attract a somewhat different demographic than a historical drama. Clearly, there are enough people out there who do, or perhaps I’m wrong; perhaps you don’t need to know anything about the Stalin’s inner circle specifically to laugh at their foibles.

But should we laugh? (Note: this is not a question about the right to do so – the movie-makers should have the right to make the movie and the audiences should have the right to watch it and laugh should the movie makes them laugh – it’s rather about good taste and propriety.)

On one level, the answer is yes. Yes, we should laugh at evil dictators. Ridicule is something that evil dictators fear, not as much as opposition, plots and conspiracies, and military defeats, but fear nevertheless. That’s why in totalitarian societies jokes can get you killed or imprisoned. Dictatorships rely on obedience and outward submission and respect; laughter erodes their sacred and pompous self-image and is therefore verbotten.

While inside the Nazi Germany or the Soviet Russia laughter was subversive and therefore quite risky, outside it was a right to be enjoyed. We have been laughing at Hitler for a long time, from Charlie Chaplin to Mel Brooks, though there are not many comedies about the Fuhrer as such (today, we probably laugh at him most often, though somewhat indirectly, when we watch every new version of the subtitled skit “Hitler hears about…”, which uses one of the most famous scenes from the classic “Downfall”). There aren’t too many comedies about the war either. Sitcoms like “Hogan’s Heroes” and “‘Allo ‘Allo” come to mind, but not many. If anything, there are even fewer comedies about Stalin and communism. I guess there are so many things to laugh at in the world that artists and creators don’t feel a need to engage in humorous archaeology and resurrect some of the history’s vilest ghosts only to poke fun at them.

On another level… When we laugh at people like Hitler or Stalin, do we also laugh at the hells they created and the tens of millions of their victims? Hitler in many ways cuts a ridiculous figure, with his waiter’s moustache, theatrical preening and hysterical speech-making; it’s easy to make him even more ridiculous for the screen. But his ridiculousness did not stop him from invading almost the whole of Europe and carrying out the Holocaust. The angry clown is a mass murderer. Hence, when we laugh at Hitler do we somehow cross the line and also laugh at Auschwitz? Or, in the context of “The Death of Stalin”, do we also laugh at gulags and famines, purges and show trials, mass torture and mass graves?

I don’t know the answer to the question. What I know is that in “Death of Stalin” the line can be particularly thin. The scenes at Lubyanka, the notorious NKVD (as the KGB then was) jail, torture factory and execution ground in Moscow, and really all the scenes involving the NKVD personnel arresting, torturing and executing people throughout the movie, border on slapstick. It’s one thing to chuckle at Malenkov or Khrushchev making fools of themselves in front of their Central Committee colleagues, it’s arguably another to chuckle at the apparatus of terror grinding the human meat in a set up a la “Flying High” or “Naked Gun”. Naked gun indeed.

What I do know is that I feel disconcerted by Nikita Khrushchev played by Steve Buscemi. Buscemi is not Khrushchev. Khrushchev is Bob Hoskins in “Enemy at the Gate”. Beria, too, is not quite Beria. But then again, “The Death of Stalin” is not a historical doco or even a historical movie. It’s a fantasy and a farce.

Awaiting a comedic take on Hitler’s last 24 hours in the bunker.