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In parts, The Great Farewell is moving. The geographic spread of the grief at Stalin’s death is awesome. The soundtrack is a compilation of grief-heightening classics from Grieg, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Chopin. For all the choreography, real grief is on display. The emphasis is far less on the Politburo members than it is on the masses. And although the reverse is true of The Death of Stalin, it resembles The Great Farewell in its respect for that grief; in the modern film there is not a hint of ridicule of their desire to pay their respects, nor of their paying for this with their lives (1,500 were killed in a crush caused by the security forces).

On the other hand, at many points The Great Farewell makes one feel slightly sick. It is pompously mournful, rigidly deferential, and has constant voiceover in praise of Stalin. Individuals attract the camera’s eye in proportion to the demonstrativeness of their grief, but it is striking that nobody tries to linger for even an instant as they shuffle at fair pace past Stalin’s coffin. Such discipline carries with it the suggestion of severe compulsion; and these thousands of queuers are clearly habituated to queuing. The red banners bearing black and white portraits of Stalin unfortunately recall the Nazi colour scheme. This is particularly chilling in the footage of them being carried in their thousands through central Warsaw. The wreaths laid at the foot of the Kremlin wall, which stretch out of sight into the distance, eerily recall the German banners which were laid there eight years before — as though the people’s grief itself were a trophy of Stalinism. One of the bishops — of all people — is shown crying.

So, if this makes one feel sick, then The Death of Stalin is the vomit. Iannucci tears back the thick pall of mourning to say, “Cheer up! You’re better off without him!” As C.S. Lewis knew when he wrote The Screwtape Letters, sometimes the best response to Satan is to laugh at him.

Given all this, I am hopeful that the film will be granted a licence in Russia — after all, it was partly filmed there. It might be asked how many Russian films British cinemas show, and how tolerant the British government or people would be of a Russian satire on, say, the death of Churchill, or fall of Margaret Thatcher. Would this not, in the current climate, be denounced as Russian interference in British politics? But if it is to be granted a Russian licence, then why has this not happened yet? There are various sensitivities to be considered, including those of Stalin’s victims as well as his fans. During the War, the British and Americans felt able to caricature Hitler as a funny little mustachioed man with one ball, whereas Soviet propaganda — understandably, given the scale of Soviet losses — treated him only as a death-hungry monster. Similarly, Stalin is someone that the Russians, who are so much closer to him than we, are inclined to take soberly, whatever their perspective on him.

It may also not help the film’s reception that it is English, given British political hostility towards Russia, of which Russians are well aware. Hence the film may be more contentious than the current Russian succès de scandale Matilda (concerning Nicholas II’s relationship with the ballerina Matilda Kseshinskaya, although the Church has more reasons to oppose this than The Death of Stalin, having canonised its protagonist).

All of these issues are all the more sensitive now, at the centenary of the Revolution. The government has had to tread a careful line in its commemorations between the feelings of the Orthodox and of Communists, and it might well consider it prudent to wait with this film (which may be disliked by both these sizeable constituencies) until later in 2018. But I hope, then, that it will be permitted — both because there is no good reason to ban such a film anywhere, and because it is a remarkable film. And I wish for Russians that they can move beyond the trauma of the presence and the loss of Stalin, to the point when Iannucci’s genius for conveying the comedy of past insanities can be appreciated without unbearable pain.
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