Movie Review: The Death of Stalin

The passing of the Soviet dictator in the 1950s is played for very dark laughs

The Death of Stalin (Ztratili jsme Stalina)
Directed by Armando Iannucci

With Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Paddy Considine, Olga Kurylenko

There is something you can do in Prague that you can’t do anywhere in Russia: see the black comedy The Death of Stalin. The film has been banned across much of the former Soviet Union for distorting history after several prominent people “put in” a bad word about it.

The film does stray a bit from actual events and tries to poke fun at the Reign of Terror that took place in the USSR in the 1950s, and the jockeying to take over the leadership after Josef Stalin died suddenly.

The humor is for the most part very dry, with the ever sour-faced Steve Buscemi playing the lead role of Nikita Khrushchev and the equally deadpan Jeffrey Tambor as Stalin’s deputy Georgy Malenkov, technically next in line. The secret police leader Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) is the third wheel in the power-seeking triangle.

The role of Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is actually rather small.

Monty Python veteran Michael Palin plays Vyacheslav Molotov, and brings an absurd Pythonesque tone to the power struggle. He vocally supports the old regime, even though he has been severely wronged by it. It is reminiscent of several Python sketches where characters deny what is plainly obvious to everyone else, much to everyone’s frustration.

Fear permeates the film. Nobody is willing to say what is actually on their mind. This makes a lot of the spoken humor a bit understated.

The ball gets rolling with a radio concert. Right as the concert ends, Stalin calls the radio station and asks for a record of it. The concert wasn’t recorded. The orchestra has to do it again and the audience has to applaud, exactly like the first time. Nobody wants to say “no” to Stalin, as that is a ticket to oblivion.

This, through a series of events, leads the situation in the title — Stalin’s death. None of the top government officials is willing to take any initiative, and even calling a doctor to examine the body requires a top-level party meeting and a vote. Everything is way more complicated than it should be, since nobody wants to be found at fault.

The race is on the control information, even from other party leaders, as certain people want to solidify their claim on power before the others even find out a race is on to fill the void.

This leads to some slapstick humor, as ministers physically jockey to be seen as first in line nearest the coffin. Appearance is everything.

Arranging the funeral becomes another series of misadventures. Steve Buscemi gives one of his best performances as a minister who clearly does not care about the details but wants to somehow turn the funeral to his advantage. Behind his humor is a scheming mind playing high-level chess. One character asks how he can plot and run at the same time, as the actual physical race to power is taking place in a forest. But if one is to survive, one must plot while on the run.

Jeffrey Tambor plays Georgy Malenkov as a useful idiot, with the emphasis firmly on the last word. He seems the most clueless as to what is going on but wants to appear solemn in all the official photographs and images.

Late in the film, Jason Isaacs turns up as a World War II hero and current army leader. Gaining his favor is another key to consolidating power. He is perhaps best known as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films. He makes fun of that arrogant air this time, hamming it up shamelessly while wearing a chest full of medals.

There is a saying that comedy is tragedy plus time. The big question is whether enough time has passed that the audience can laugh at Stalin and the terror he inflicted. The answer in Russia and other ex-Soviet states is clearly no, as showing the film there carries severe penalties.

But with the political situation worldwide turning back to demagogues and state-run propaganda, perhaps it is time to take authoritarianism down a peg or two by ridiculing it. And at the same time seeing what it can lead to when it is not questioned.

Director Armando Iannucci has worked on the US political comedy TV series Veep as a director, writer and producer. He also made the 2009 comedy film In the Loop, about politics and the Iraq War. He does not shy away from controversy, and this film shows that.

In the end, The Death of Stalin raises serious questions about power, populism, information and manipulation. It is easy to see the events of the film resonating sharply in the current world situation, and that is no laughing matter.

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