“The Death of Stalin”: Pitch-Black Political Humor at Its Finest

“The Death of Stalin”: Pitch-Black Political Humor at Its Finest March 25, 2018

Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), and Beria (Simon Russell Beale) ponder Stalin

One would think it difficult, if not impossible, to craft a comedy around Joseph Stalin, the man responsible for more deaths than Hitler, the megalomaniac who caused an entire nation to quake with terror for decades.  But by focusing on the bickering of the sycophants surrounding him, as the Great Terror continues in the background, Armando Iannucci has created the best comedy I’ve seen in over a year.

Iannucci’s success with The Death of Stalin, only his second feature film, shouldn’t be a surprise, however.  With his two best-known TV series – The Thick of It in his British homeland, and its American reboot Veep – he’s shown himself a master of exposing the ineptitude at the upper echelons of political power.

Based upon the well-regarded French comic book of the same name, The Death of Stalin opens with a sequence that foreshadows the melding of comedy and horror that will follow.  As a performance of a Mozart piano concerto comes to an end, the Radio Moscow executive on the scene receives a brusque phone call from the General Secretary himself, requesting a recording of the night’s concert.

To his immense alarm, the exec discovers the live broadcast was not recorded.  Knowing the outcome if he doesn’t comply with Stalin’s demand, he scrambles to gather the dispersing artists and audience, to re-create the broadcasted concert.  In the ensuing bustle, the conductor faints, so a new one must be rousted from his apartment.  The latter naturally fears that the late-night raps on his door are a summons from the NKVD, the Soviet secret police.

The breakneck pace of this sequence briskly shifts over to a scene at the leader’s dacha, where the same tone is found at a dinner he’s hosting for his Central Committee.  Lavrenti Beria, the head of the NKVD, plays a juvenile prank on Nikita Khrushchev, who seems all too happy to clown around for Stalin’s amusement.  However, silliness quickly transforms to hushed fear, when second-in-command Georgy Malenkov steps in it by asking the whereabouts of a purged Party member.

Given the film’s title, it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that Stalin soon suffers his fatal hemorrhagic stroke.  It may be more surprising that the handling of his final hours is a brilliant piece of hilarity.  The soldiers stationed outside his bedroom door exchange petrified glances, but are too frightened to enter his room when they hear Stalin’s collapsing thump.  The next morning, the Central Committee members refuse to choose a doctor until a quorum has assembled around Stalin’s piss-sodden body, still on the bedroom floor.

The bulk of the film concerns itself with the ceremony surrounding the leader’s funeral and the jockeying to succeed him.  Rare for a comedy, there’s not a single spoken line or moment of visual humor that falls flat.  And the laughs abound, as the dialogue rushes past at a speed that wouldn’t feel out of place in a screwball comedy of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Stalin’s son Vasily (Rupert Friend) eulogizes his father, flanked by Malenkov and Khrushchev

To give just a couple of samples:  as the surviving members of the Central Committee yell over each other at a meeting, Steve Buscemi’s Khrushchev unironically pronounces that “only comrades and friends could shout at each other like this.”  In another scene, as he races Beria to be the first to console Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, a colleague wonders how he can run and plot simultaneously.

The direction and cinematography complement the story splendidly, as do the Moscow and Kiev backdrops.  The jiggling handheld camera in the aforementioned scene fits the harried scheming.  An earlier sequence makes effective use of a dolly, rolling down a hallway in the NKVD basement.  In each doorway we hear a shout of “long live Stalin!” followed by the “bang!” of the executioner’s pistol, fusing irony with a feel for the scope of Stalin and Beria’s murderous tendencies.

The Death of Stalin contains the best ensemble work of any film in recent memory, uniting Anglophone actors from both sides of the pond.  Simon Russell Beale scares the hell out of me as the breezily sadistic Beria.  Steve Buscemi has his meatiest movie role since Fargo, believably playing a character whose toadying conceals a ruthless will to dominate.  Monty Python vet Michael Palin is delightful to watch as the once powerful, now disgraced Molotov, whose head spins with the pace of regime change and 180 degree turns in loyalty.  And Jason Isaacs looks to be having a blast as toxic masculinity poster child General Zhukov, chewing through scenery faster than he ever did as Harry Potter’s Lucius Malfoy.

Jason Isaacs. as General Zhukov, in “The Death of Stalin”

Christopher Willis’ film score manifestly channels the concerti and symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich.  Considering this Soviet composer’s biography, fearing for his life and livelihood under Stalin’s reign, this is a perfect choice.  The music also fits The Death of Stalin’s tone like a glove, since the superficial playfulness of Shostakovich’s compositions masks a frenetically palpitating heart.

Tempting as it is to apply the lessons of The Death of Stalin to the Age of Trump, Iannucci created this film before our president’s election.  Yet Trump or no Trump, Putin or no Putin, the throngs who spontaneously gather to march solemnly past Stalin’s coffin demonstrate the eternal truth that plenty of humans crave a strongman to lord it over them.  The falling in and out of favor of various Party members, with doctored photographs to bolster the latest official narrative, shows that leaders have striven to alter reality long before Trump’s tweets of “fake news!” and Kellyanne Conway’s promotion of alternative facts.

With this near-masterpiece – only some rare anachronistic slang pulled me out of the moment – I can’t wait to see what Iannucci does next.  The Thick of It, Veep, and now The Death of Stalin reveal a political cynicism, a belief that our world is pseudo-directed by buffoons incapable of peering past their own appetites.  Looking to current events – at least on the western side of the Atlantic – it’s hard to disagree.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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