Below are the remarks from the March 20, 2018 “Off the Couch” viewing of The Death of Stalin with Alistair McKnight, PsyaD, LMHC , Member of BPSI. “Off the Couch” is part of a decades-long collaboration between The Coolidge Cinema and BPSI.
The one-liners fly as fast as political fortunes fall in this uproarious, wickedly irreverent satire from Armando Iannucci (Veep, In the Loop). Moscow, 1953: when tyrannical dictator Joseph Stalin drops dead, his parasitic cronies square off in a frantic power struggle to be the next Soviet leader. Among the contenders are the dweeby Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the wily Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), and the sadistic secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). But as they bumble, brawl, and backstab their way to the top, just who is running the government? Combining palace intrigue with rapid-fire farce, this audacious comedy is a bitingly funny takedown of bureaucratic dysfunction performed to the hilt by a sparkling ensemble cast.
I’d like to focus on two themes that relate to how this movie offers commentary on aspects of our contemporary political, social, and cultural world. If we imagine that in making movies, directors try to bring into our collective consciousness aspects of our social world that otherwise manifest as background anxieties in our daily lives, then we can wonder what aspects of our current politico-cultural world director Armando Iannucci is asking us to reconsider.
It seems interesting to me that the whole movie is bookended by the melancholic rhythm of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23. The tranquility of the opening music is abruptly interrupted by the shrill clatter of a telephone ringing in the office of the Director of Radio Moscow. We soon learn that it is the General Secretary personally calling and are swept up into the paranoid world of Stalin’s Russia, where the dominant emotional states are persecutory fear, dread, anxiety, sadism, masochism, and hatred. Of course, there is also the constant threat of death. In this opening scene when the Director of Radio Moscow is desperately trying to get the exiting concert-goers to return to their seats, he reassures them not to worry, “nobody is going to be killed.” The threat of death is continually present in its negation.
In one sense the movie could be read as a case-study in a particular kind of group dynamics. The second scene transports us to Stalin’s Dacha, where he and his stooges are enjoying a boozy evening. There is no doubt about the group’s leader, with Beria, Kruschev, Molotov, and Malenkov all laughing at Stalin’s jokes and trying to keep in his good graces. Sycophantic in Stalin’s presence, they nervously evaluate their “performances” after they leave. The group dynamics are internally stable.
With the death of Stalin, we witness a panicked power-grab, a phase of chaotic reorganization among the Committee members in which a new leader is to be found. While the Committee’s protocol appoints the hapless Malenkov to be the acting General Secretary, the affective action of the movie takes place between Kruschev and Beria who both want to ensconce themselves as the new leader. Both men want their true intentions to remain hidden from others.
Tension builds between these adversaries as the movie unfolds. It becomes increasingly clear that there is no possibility of these two competing voices being brought into synthesis. One voice needs to be quieted: Beria is executed.
After Beria was shot I found myself feeling a bizarre sense of relief – the rivalrous tension that as viewers we are asked to hold in the duel between Beria and Kruschev dissipates, and we finally have some kind of resolution. Not a resolution through the synthesis of competing voices, but through the silencing of one voice. The group thus finds a new equilibrium with Kruschev as the de facto leader.
Returning to the concert hall in the movie’s final scene, the sound of Mozart’s Piano Concerto returns and I wondered whether the proceeding hour-and-a-half of dialogue had been nothing more than an inconvenient interruption of the calming sound of the piano. As the camera rises over rows of people listening to the concerto, we are shown a new leader’s portrait hanging on the central wall of the theater. Kruschev has seemingly “won.” The subtitles tell us that Kruschev assumed absolute power in 1956, and that Brezhnev then ousted Kruschev in 1964. The very final moment of the movie involves Brezhnev, sitting in the row behind Kruschev, smiling with a knowing grin at the back of his new leader’s head. As viewers with the benefit of history, we know that Kruschev’s grip on power will come to its own end.
I am not a student of political science or an historian of any kind, though what I found myself wondering about after the movie was this: Is there something about the nature of political systems that makes periods of paranoid instability unavoidable? Put another way: Is it inevitable that a period of relative political stability will at some point devolve into a paranoid and chaotic phase of re-organization, before something more-or-less stable re-emerges? The movie focused on perhaps the most violent totalitarian state in history, though I found myself thinking of the current political climate of fear and paranoia in America. Are we living through our own phase of paranoid and chaotic social reorganization that will one day lead to the emergence of something more-or-less stable.
A second theme I found interesting is the question Iannucci raises about the relationship between truth, facts, history, and what we might think of as a social group’s “dominant fiction”. Paul Ricoeur once said that history is a story written about the past for a particular purpose. I would like to play with this idea and extend it’s logic: historical truth is itself a story written about the past for a particular purpose. This movie highlights the relationship between the purposes behind (re)writing history and historical truth itself – as those purposes change, so does the truth. We end up in a situation in which truth is equated with political expediency.
Take the scene where Molotov and Kruschev are talking in Molotov’s apartment bathroom, when they are interrupted by Beria who unbeknownst to them has just freed Molotov’s wife Polina from prison. Molotov and Kruschev, trying to tow the party line, say “Polina was a treacherous sow,” “she was a parasite,” “she betrayed the party”. Beria retorts, “Or she was a wronged woman who was framed.” As Polina walks in and embraces her husband, the truth of Polina’s history is now re-written from traitor to wronged woman because of the new social reality. Polina’s “truth” is determined by the political system she inhabits, and that inhabits her.
Stalin demanded allegiance to the party line. To defy the party line was to open oneself to being labeled a traitor and executed. But the party line is forever shifting, leading to the hilarious scene in which the committee are meeting formally for the first time, and each member is trying to intuit from the others what the party line actually is. “Stalin was liberal,” no, “Stalin was radical.” Molotov goes on a riff about what loyalty to Stalin really is. He starts with the assertion that loyalty is “to follow what Stalin last authorized”. Then, he asserts it is to “follow Stalin’s loyalty to the collective leadership”. He shifts once more to it being “strong and sticking to what we believe in” before finally concluding that true loyalty would be for the committee to “form our own beliefs.” The other committee members tentatively raise and lower their hands as they attempt to understand what the “party line” really is – no-one there knows what is “most loyal” but suspect that others do and don’t want to be seen not to know. The group’s “truth” in the form of the party line, or the dominant fiction, becomes the thing that simply keeps you alive. We see how “truth” comes to be anchored in political power.
It is hard not to think about our current political climate of “alternative facts” and “fake news.” Rather than truth becoming more elusive, perhaps we are experiencing on a social level the disillusionment of the fantasy that there is some kind of objective social truth, divorced from political power? The term “fake news” highlights that “real news” is itself a story written for a particular purpose. While we can appreciate the political wish to dictate what are “real facts” and what are “alternative facts,” the illusory nature of such a distinction seems important.
As psychoanalysts, we are well versed in the capacity of the human mind to create personal narratives, personal myths, which serve a particular psychological purpose. We humans are apt to hold on to particular personal narratives to avoid acknowledging alternative personal facts that the psyche cannot tolerate. Our personal truths are organic living narratives that (hopefully) evolve in the course of our lives. I wonder if this movie demonstrated how such dynamics within the individual can be seen on the political level as well.
Alistair McKnight, Psya.D., L.M.H.C. is an advanced candidate at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute (BPSI), and a Graduate of BPSI’s Advanced Training Program in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy (ATP). He is on the faculty of the Explorations in Mind Program, BPSI, and has a private practice in Cambridge, MA.
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