The Obscenity of Human Power

In 2008, the Coen brothers made a violent and mean-spirited comedy, Burn After Reading, about the CIA. Months away from the Obama presidency, it was not a film anyone wanted to see, but in the decade since – as Obama was first subverted and then absorbed by the Beltway class, and the Presidency fell to a man who, being as stupid and empty as imperial power, was its inevitable wielder – it has become the only political film I can rewatch. 

Now there are two. Armando Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin is a pitch-black comedy in which British and American actors play out the post-Stalin succession crisis as slapstick farce.  (The film should absolutely not be seen by anyone under 18.) Insofar as there’s a story arc, it’s the corruption of Khrushchev, played by sad-eyed, lovable Steve Buscemi as a relative innocent, especially in contrast to Stalin’s chief torturer Beria. You want to see Beria die from the moment he’s onscreen, and the movie, after an hour of spy-vs-spy, finally gives you what you want – gives you Beria outmaneuvered, condemned, shot, set on fire. It is unbearable to watch. It turns out that the most monstrous individual is easier to look at than is the casual, matter-of-fact way that states kill. Human power is the worst obscenity of all.

The film should not work; its premise is tasteless, inhuman. Yet it does. Deadpan-at-the-edge-of-the-void turns out to be just right for portraying tasteless and inhuman men. And the way the film starts so far out on a limb, then keeps going, gives it the audacity, the sense of a sustained-doing-the-impossible, of a masterpiece. A better artistic representation of the Calvinist thinker Jacques Ellul’s great dictum that politics is the devil – that it corrupts even sane initiatives and rightful impulses – is unlikely ever to be made.   

  • Phil Christman writes and teaches in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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