The Death of Stalin, and Twisting Comedy

The Death of Stalin (2017), is a comedy film about the succession crisis that ensued in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s fatal seizure in 1953. The plot follows a power struggle between Nikita Kruschev, then 1st Secretary of the Moscow Committee, and Lavrenti Beria, head of the NKVD security forces (the secret police). The film uses comedy to send a message about human nature, but more specifically, governments: Authoritative regimes are built on fear and are still incredibly incompetent. The film finds comedy in the fear present in life in the Soviet Union, such as a scene where a man fears that a room may have been bugged and he was recorded mildly insulting Stalin’s taste in music, and begins apologizing to random appliances in the room in case they were bugged.

The film loosely falls under the traditional definition of a comedy, as a (debatably) noble protagonist, Kruschev, achieves an increase in fortune by the end of the film. However, the path to this fortune is anything but noble. Kruschev lifts a travel ban placed by Beria to allow the people into Stalin’s funeral, leading to NKVD forces firing on an unexpected crowd of arriving mourners, massacring them. Civilians are executed and sent to gulags, reforms are withheld for political power, and the protagonist achieves his increase in fortune by staging a coup, holding a kangaroo court, and executing Beria. This gains Kruschev an increase in fortune as he becomes the Head of the Soviet Union. However, further subverting the definition of traditional comedy, the film ends with text reading that Kruschev will eventually be ousted by Leonid Brezhnev. This solidifies the message of the film about authoritarianism, as not even the hero of the story is secure in this regime.

Raising the Red Lantern and the Lowering of Women

Directed by Zhang Yimou, Raising the Red Lantern is a film that follows Songlian as she is married to a man as his 4th wife and how she navigates her new life. 

As soon as Songlian is married she is thrust into this new life and we observe how she navigates and learns about her new life. This is where the audience can observe gender roles in action. While the men are out and about often not home doing activities unknown the women stay home and have their own activities. These activities are much different and can be observed as almost warfare between the women. In the film the mistresses plot ways to get the husband to stay with them. Songlian claims to be pregnant so the husband will stay with her and she hopes to eventually become pregnant. The 2nd mistress will betray the others to gain favor. Even the 3rd mistress will act sick or sing loudly to disturb the others. 

The film shows how the women have gone from university students and famous singers to fighting over a man. This shows the deep societal expectations on women at the time. The framing of the movie even shows the role women are trapped in. Songlian is often boxed in a room or closely trapped by a frame of a bed or door. This represents the role she is trapped in with how she can’t escape being a wife and mistress. Finally at the end of the movie she is not framed in this way. This is after she has been declared crazy and is let more roam free. While not a happy ending she has been freed in a way from the social constructs placed on her by society at the time. 

The audience is left feeling conflicted about how they should feel. Are they happy she has broken free in a way and does not just have to please the master. But she has seemingly gone mad wandering around and is left completely alone. Before she had servants and relative power. Now she is a wandering crazy person. This leaves the audience thinking deeply about the movie which accomplishes the task of the director in creating it.