Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Jeffrey Tambor
Director: Armando Iannucci
Writers: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows
In the opening scene of The Death of Stalin, a live performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 is being broadcast by Radio Moscow. Joseph Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) is listening and informs the head of the radio station Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) that he would like a recording. Andreyev realises to his utter terror that the concert is not being recorded and now he must make one in the time it will take Stalin’s envoy to arrive for its collection. This means convincing famed pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), an avowed critic of the Soviet regime, to perform the whole concerto once more, sending the secret police to abduct another conductor after the first one is rendered unconscious, and pulling people off the street so that the acoustics sound right. They go through all these astoundingly absurd lengths in order to comply with the General Secretary’s request, so absolute was Stalin’s terror and the country’s fear of him. I knew going in that I was about to see a farcical satire, but I could never have imagined just how agonisingly dark that comedy would be.
As Stalin receives the recording, enclosed is a note from Yudina outlining all of the ways that he has ruined the country. As Stalin reads the note he laughs, then starts coughing, and then collapses. After Stalin is discovered the next day, the members of the Central Committee are alerted. They include security chief Laverntiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and Head of the Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). Also part of the committee is Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), who Stalin added to his list of enemies just the night before. With the Soviet leader now on his deathbed, his advisors resolve to act quickly in order to consolidate their authority in the power vacuum that is to follow. Key ingredients to a triumphant succession and securing control over the USSR are the Red Army, led by Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), and Stalin’s children Vasily (Rupert Friend) and Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough). As factions arise and plots are conspired, it isn’t long before all hell breaks loose.
The Death of Stalin is a farce in the same way as Dr. Strangelove. It takes a deeply frightening story and finds humour in the absurdity of it all; the nightmarish circumstances, the deranged logic of the events that transpire, the malicious nature of these characters, and even in the awful tragedy of this brutal regime. It works on the principle that people are funnier when they are being serious and sincere, as opposed to when they’re trying to be funny. There is enough distance between us and the past that we can recognise the behaviour and thinking of these characters, whether they be the calculating opportunistic conspirators, the blind ideological loyalists, or the terrified and powerless subjects, as being ridiculous without much exaggeration needed. When the most feared and dangerous man in the world is completely immobilised on his office floor lying in his own urine and nobody will even suggest that he might be dying for fear that he might recover and punish them for their treachery, you’ve got to laugh.
It works because the characters are all played realistically as subjects of the pressures and anxieties that characterised Stalinist Russia, all shrouded in an emotional fog that prevents them from seeing their predicament as the disturbed comedy that it is. The ensemble Iannucci has assembled is stellar and each actor assumes their meaty role beautifully. Beale shines as Beria, a conniving figure whose devious gears start turning the instant Stalin is discovered and wastes no time in sinking his claws into Stalin’s appointed successor, Tambor’s hilariously vain and spineless Malenkov. Buscemi is great in his turn as the intensely anxious Khrushchev, so edgy and stressed in his attempt to stay on top of things that you swear he’ll have a stroke himself before it’s all over. Palin is comic gold as Molotov, the feeble yes-man who will go along with his government’s every whim unfailingly (even when those whims concern the question of his wife’s loyalty). Also worthy of note is Isaacs as the buff, gruff and tough Zhukov, a man of action who doesn’t particularly care who succeeds Stalin and will go along with whoever has the best deal.
Iannucci has previously distinguished himself with his TV political satires The Thick of It and Veep, both about politicians and spin-doctors, made up of some combination of ambition, incompetence and nastiness, navigating the turbulent world of government, publicity and demographics. With The Death of Stalin he takes his brand of comedy to new heights. Unlike before where a cock up for Malcolm Tucker or Selina Meyer could result in a media embarrassment or a political loss, here a cock up means a bullet in the head. Thus the schemes are more diabolical, the scrambling is more desperate, and the self-aware reflection is more alarming than ever before. The regime of Stalin was a truly horrendous, unbearable time and this film shows us just how appalling it could get through a wickedly dark comedic lens. As with Dr. Strangelove or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, things get so horrible, chaotic and devastating over time that by the end you won’t know whether to laugh or pull your own hair out.