DIRECTED BY ARMANDO IANNUCCI/2018
Director Armando Iannucci is no stranger to political satire, as this was the theme of his previous film, In the Loop. It is also the subject of the award-winning show Veep, where he has served as a writer for several years. For his latest film, The Death of Stalin, he once again dips his toes into the waters of political satire, crafting a film that seeks to take a serious and realistic tone despite having its tongue inserted firmly in its cheek.
The title gives away the plot as this film deals with the death of Stalin. Stalin is of course the ruthless communist leader of the Soviet Union in the 1940’s and 50’s. His senior members on the Council of Ministers all play nice with Stalin hoping to not end up on his “enemies list”, which would mean a sure death in the time of Stalin’s Great Terror. Just because they are playing nice doesn’t mean that they are.
When Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) orders a recording of a Mozart performance he hears performed over the radio that wasn’t actually recorded, we see the absurdity of the communistic system that existed at that time. Conductors are woken up and pulled out of their homes, while peasants are brought in to enhance the clapping at the end of each piece of music. The pianist, Maria Veniaminovna Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), refuses to replay the piece until she is given 20,000 rubles. She also chooses to slip in a note telling the dictator that he is evil and that she hopes his reign ends. When he receives the recording and reads the note, he laughs with a thunderous roar until a brain hemorrhage lays him out, paralyzing half his body and causing him to slip into a coma.
The first signs of political power-plays emerge as the Council of Ministers begin to show up, refusing to touch Stalin’s comatose body. They want to get a doctor, but all of the doctors had been rounded up. They get bad doctors instead, hoping that perhaps Stalin won’t emerge from the coma. As such, all of them begin preparing how they will survive the turmoil that will ensue.
The Council of Ministers includes the head of the NKVD (secret police) and the State Security administrator, Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the Deputy Chairman Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), advisor Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), and First Deputy Premier Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin).
Each of these ministers spend their time trying to either install the weaker one of the group as leader, namely Malenkov, to use him as a puppet, or to undo the power-plays of the others. With a commitment to party loyalty publicly, this creates a lot of humorous moments as they must look like they are loyal communists seeking to continue the policies of Stalin as they prepare for his state funeral after he finally succumbs to death, while simultaneously stabbing each other in the back as each tries to claw their way to power.
In the midst of all of this they must try to console and win the favor of Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), while trying to supress the drunken embarrassment of Stalin’s son Vasily (Rupert Friend). Throw in a great performance by Jason Isaacs as Field Marshal Zhukov, who wants to use the army to undermine Beria’s attempt to seize power with the NKVD, and Gerald Lepkowski as Brezhnev, who would years later push out Khrushchev, who eventually becomes the Soviet Premier, and this story is loaded with political angles to skewer.
Armando Iannucci largely uses the graphic language and violence to ground the absurdity of the political ploys being hatched by everyone to create a film that looks like it might be true. Largely, the facts are correct, though historical inaccuracy still looms throughout the script, mainly in terms of the timing of the events as several years is compressed to revolve all around the day of Stalin’s death and his state funeral a few days later, all in 1953.
The humor that permeates the script is also going to vary in mileage for each viewer, as it is meant to be drawn out of the situations, rather than presented to you through the situations. Since these are real events where real people were rounded up and summarily shot, and given the violence towards that end that one will witness in this film, many might conclude that there is nothing funny to find. They would be wrong. This isn’t a comedy, as much as it is political satire. The difference is that satire exaggerates to the point of absurdity to expose how absurd their subject matter actually is. The comedy is thus drawn out through a scathing look at Stalin’s government and the aftermath, and the absurdity that the script employs to demonstrate this exposes how laughably stupid and desperate, and as a result tragic, this government truly was.
This is ripe territory for an actor like Michael Palin who blazed comedic trails in political satire as a part of Monty Python. Jeffrey Tambor and Steve Buscemi have a perfect chemistry and Tambor almost steals the show with his hesitantly aloof, politically-safe approach to Malenkov that could easily be an extension to his classic George Bluth, Sr. character on Arrested Development. Nearly the entire cast are either British or American, and none seek to really attempt a stereotypical English-Russian accent. This provides another source of humor that may or may not be intended.
The Death of Stalin is a good, solid satirical film, that deserves to be seen. The cast alone is worth every watching every frame and Armando Iannucci’s script is tight and fraught with the proper amount of absurdity that balances being entertained by the bumbling fallout of these politicians’ scheming, and exposing and condemning the evil aspects of a failed government who turned on its own people.