‘If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait till I get through with it.’ — Rufus T. Firefly, Duck Soup
Armando Iannucci’s historical farce The Death of Stalin — which traces the madcap scramble for power between members of Russia’s ruling Central Committee in the days following the titular predicament — has already established itself as an early contender for the most acclaimed comedy of the year. Many of the reviews have been quick to compare the film to a number of classic political satires, from The Great Dictator to Animal Farm to Dr. Strangelove.
These comparisons are all apt, but they don’t quite do justice to The Death of Stalin’s true achievement. The film will no doubt earn its place, over time, in the pantheon of subversive classics, but it may already stand as the apotheosis of a particular sub-genre: the Dystopian Farce.
Political satire can run the gamut in terms of tone and appeal, but dystopian farce distinguishes itself via its pitch-black sense of humor, a general assertion that the world is run (if not entirely populated) by fools and monsters, and the prognosis that mankind is doomed to either live in a hellish state that mirrors society’s worst aspects or else perish in an apocalypse of its own making.
While Dystopian Farces are often set in the kind of future/parallel realities that many classics of speculative fiction use for the purpose of allegory — including Terry Gilliam’s nightmarishly funny 1984 homage Brazil (1985); Paul Verhoeven’s ultra-subversive and satirical adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1997); Mike Judge’s lighthearted but deeply misanthropic Idiocracy (2006), and Yorgos Lanthimos’s Kafkaesque The Lobster (2016) — they are just as often set in a world that resembles our own, be it our past, present, or future.
The Dystopian Farce does not warn against the possibility of societal collapse or the threat of totalitarian oppression, so much as it posits that our species’ innate stupidity has us living in such a predicament already. These films offer only one solution: to laugh despite the hopelessness of it all.
In shaping a canon of Dystopian Farce, it is necessary to separate films that are philosophically dystopic from those that merely take place within a dystopia. That distinction disqualifies a film like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940). Though its subversive bona fides are unquestionable — it was one of the first films to openly and unequivocally condemn the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini — it is, ultimately, a humanistic rallying cry, one that ends on triumphantly redemptive note.
The same can be said, to a lesser extent, of two recent comedies that attempt to follow in Chaplin’s footsteps: Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator (2012) and Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s The Interview (2014). Neither can compare to The Great Dictator in terms of quality or legacy, but they are similar in that they both offer happy endings and redemptive arcs in the face of brutal tyranny – Cohen’s Dictator learns the value of democracy and imports it to his country, while The Interview ends with Kim Jong-un dead and North Korea liberated.
Such resolutions are hardly surprising, considering that movies generally offer escapism and require happy endings. But when dealing with the subject of totalitarian oppression, these always feel false. The violent fallout of the Arab Spring and the current nuclear one-upmanship between America and North Korea put this false dichotomy in sharp relief. And while The Great Dictator’s ending remains one of the most stirring in all of classic Hollywood, it’s tempered by the reality of how real-life events played out. Chaplin himself would go on to proclaim that, had he known the true scope of the Nazis’ atrocity at the time, he never would have made his film.
Truer to the reality of its subject on a thematic level — while going even further into absurdity on an aesthetic one — is the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933).
Setting their askew sights on the rising tide of European fascism seven years before Chaplin, the Marx Brothers presented an escalating series of conflict, rooted entirely in nonsense, between the imaginary nations of Freedonia and Sylvania. From the opening musical number, “The Laws of My Administration,” wherein Freedonia’s newly appointed leader, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), bans everything from whistling to chewing gum (“If any form of pleasure is exhibited/Report to me and it will be prohibited”), it is clear that the central hero of this zany comedy is a full-blown dictatorial madman. He even breaks the fourth wall to let the audience know his psychotic intentions: “If you think this country’s bad off now/Just wait till I get through with it.”
What follows is an anarchic sprint to all-out war, with no pit stops for sentimentality or moral lesson learning. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the film failed to resonate with critics or audiences upon its initial release. Depression-era audiences, who were still living with the fallout of the First World War while staring down the barrel of another, likely didn’t see the humor in such cynical disregard for international politics, but the film has since come to stand as one of the most incendiary mockeries of the 20th century diplomacy, as well as an uncompromisingly ironic treatment of war. It anarchic spirit would go on to influence any number of great American satirists, from Chuck Jones to Thomas Pynchon to Matt Groening.
That same spirit can be felt across a number of Dystopian Farces throughout the years, including the recently departed Milos Foreman’s gentle but scathing indictment of communist collectivity The Fireman’s Ball (1967), in which every member of respectable Czechoslovakian society is shown to be a leering, blithering, conniving character in the Marx Brothers mode.
It is there as well in the paranoid farce of William Richert’s Kennedy assassination spoof Winter Kills (1979); in the Coen Brothers’ misanthropic examination of Washington’s “intelligence” community Burn After Reading (2008); and in Paul Thomas Anderson’s elegiac adaptation of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (2014), in which the dark powers-that-be may not, in actuality, “be” at all. While none of these films are set within an out-and-out dystopia, they all posit that the world is run by a shadowy deep state that, when the curtain is pulled back even a little bit, is revealed to be not all that deep.
Of these latter films, the most transgressive by far is 2010’s Four Lions, written and directed by early Iannucci collaborator Chris Morris. The British film takes a humorous, even empathetic look at the struggles of four would-be Muslim terrorists planning an attack on London. It treats them with the same loving ridicule that any number of sitcoms or Apatow-style comedies would their own stunted man-children. That the film not only doesn’t shy away from the bloodshed and horror of their ultimate victory but also shows how stupid, meaningless actions can be repackaged into sinister conspiracy theories following these types of violent incidents, makes it a brilliant indictment of the dystopian mindset that much of society has adopted in the wake of the current War on Terror.
Of all Dystopian Farces, there are two that stand out as especially terrifying.
The first, and most obvious, is Stanley Kubrick’s cold war comedy of errors, Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), which depicts the doctrine of containment (as assured by the theory of mutually assured destruction) as the biggest farce of all. Such doctrines mean nothing when human beings, with their myriad neuroses, madness, pettiness, and obsequiousness, are the ones attempting to abide by them. Is there a line that more succinctly encapsulates the hypocrisy of wartime diplomacy than “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room!”? Or an image that more perfectly presents the distance between America’s idea of itself vs. the ultimate end result of that idea than Maj. “King” Kong riding the nuclear warhead like a bronco, waving his hat around like John Wayne on his way to ushering in the end of the world?
Kubrick’s fatalistic vision might end with a montage of the world devoured by nuclear fire, but it comes off as a light-hearted conclusion (and not just because Vera Lynn’s wistful tune “We’ll Meet Again” plays over it) when compared against the other ultimate apocalyptic farce. If Dr. Strangelove shows us the word engulfed in flame, then Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) brings us fully inside the inferno, one that matches Dante’s own in terms of atrocity (indeed, the film’s four segments — the Anteinferno, the Circle of Manias, the Circle of S**t, and the Circle of Blood — make that influence clear).
Long held as perhaps the most disgusting, brutal film ever made (a distinction that recent entries The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film have attempted to eclipse), Salò is Pasolini’s loose adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s book of the same name. The plot (such as one exists) concerns four ruling Italian fascists in the district of Salò (known simply as the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate, and the President) who agree to marry each other’s daughters in order to solidify their grasp of the district. First, though, they embark upon a 120-day orgy of debauchery in which they subject nine young girls and nine young men, all taken by force from the local villages, to a variety of sexual torture and murder.
Salò is mostly considered an arthouse horror film, for obvious reason. But for as horrific as it is, it is also undeniably funny. That the humor is overpowered by the sadism on display, as well as the hopelessness of the conclusion, doesn’t mean it is entirely negated. A second viewing of the film (should anyone voluntarily undertake one) reveals the depth of comedy hidden within the various abominations on display.
While many consider Pasolini to have made a vile, irredeemably evil film (intentionally run over with his own car the same year that Salò was released, many believe his murder resulted from anger over the film), a clear-eyed viewer can’t mistake it for anything other than the ultimate indictment of the fascist dystopia which he knew firsthand (he was, at one point, an avid supporter of fascism, before renouncing it and adopting a communist ideology). Pasolini, by plunging us headfirst into coprophilous phantasmagoria, is able to convey how suffocating the oppression of that system truly was. No film has been able to match it in that regard…
Until The Death of Stalin.
If Iannucci’s previous film, In the Loop (2009) — loosely based on his hit BBC series In the Thick of It (2005 – 2012) and following various Anglo-American political players alternatively attempting to avoid and incite an allied invasion into a Middle Eastern country — was a slightly less bombastic modern answer to Dr. Strangelove, then The Death of Stalin is a less extreme, though no less frightening, answer to Salò in its depiction — for the purpose of allegory — of what it’s like to live in hell.
While nowhere near as vomit-inducing in its depictions of physical torture or sexual violence, The Death of Stalin is able to convey torturous daily life during the Stalinist Reign of Terror to such a degree that the terror becomes almost mundane. But of course such terror can never truly become mundane, and even when the tables are turned on the most vicious of its perpetrators, there is no sense of justice or comeuppance, only more death, in all of its ugly soullessness.
The film’s ability to maintain this sensation of horror while simultaneously remaining hilarious is its greatest achievement. If other examples of Dystopian Farce alternated between those two modes (Brazil, The Lobster, Burn After Reading, Four Lions), or else let the horror inherent to their subject exist mostly as subtext (Duck Soup, Starship Troopers, Idiocracy), The Death of Stalin is able to balance all of it simultaneously.
In this regard, it bests even Dr. Strangelove — which heightens the farce to underline the horror — as well as Salò — which heightens the horror to underline the farce. It is the perfect amalgamation of horror, hopelessness, and hilarity, and as such, stands as perhaps the greatest Dystopian Farce yet made.
That it can be read as allegory for any number of real life predicaments — from Vladimir Putin’s plutocratic rule over modern Russian, to the bottomless stupidity and backstabbing of the would-be authoritarian Trump administration, to the factionalist division tearing apart the European Union — says something very frightening about the various dystopias we currently live in.
Of course, most of us don’t need reminding. We are well aware that we’re living in close proximity to dystopia, if not entirely with one. But with that in mind, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that, if nothing else, we might as well have a laugh at the farce of it all every now and then.