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The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin is exactly what it says on the tin: A work of historical fiction depicting the death of Josef Stalin and its immediate aftermath. It’s a time of great instability, with so many politicians jockeying to be next in power while the nation is falling apart. Based strictly on that synopsis, this sounded like some dime-a-dozen costume drama, destined to come and go without leaving any kind of impression…

Sorry, what’s that? It was written and directed by Armando Iannucci? The same guy who gave us In the Loop and Veep? Well, that makes all the difference!

Seriously, Iannucci has long since proven himself to be a master of whip-smart political commentary, due in no small part to his extraordinary gift for dialogue and his pitch black sense of humor. All of which are a perfect fit for this material. After all, this is a nation in which human life is cheap and anyone can be shot for no reason at all. It’s also a nation so heavily dependent on one man that everybody is epically clueless regarding what to do without him.

It’s hard to succinctly describe an Armando Iannucci film, since so much of it depends on dizzying dialogue and plots so labyrinthine that even the pinhead characters can’t always keep them straight. But in this case, there are a handful of scenes I could point to that perfectly sum up the film as a whole.

One comes early on, when Stalin (here played by Adrian McLoughlin) listens to a concerto being played live on the radio. He calls the station to ask for a recording of the performance, and the radio producer (played by Paddy Considine) doesn’t have the guts to tell Stalin that no recording exists. So the producer has to scrabble together an exact recreation of the concerto that was just performed, at great inconvenience and expense for all involved. And while that’s going on, the scene is intercut with footage of Stalin’s foot soldiers barging in to arrest, torture, and/or kill anyone who was on Stalin’s list of enemies for whatever unknown reason. This sends the clear message that if every little detail isn’t perfectly exact according to this petty and arbitrary request from Stalin, everyone in the radio hall is going to die. It’s a darkly hilarious premise, made all the more so by Considine’s comic desperation.

Then Stalin finally collapses, and he does it behind closed doors with an armed guard posted outside. The guards are dead if they go in and it’s a false alarm, they’re heroes if they go in and Stalin is genuinely in need of assistance, and they’re dead if Stalin died on their watch and they did nothing. It’s the kind of dilemma that could only happen in a world completely void of logic or regard for human life. Ultimately, the guards decide to stay where they are because Stalin has put himself on such a high pedestal that nobody dares approach him for any reason.

This leads to further complications, when Stalin desperately needs a doctor. Problem: All the halfway decent doctors in the country have been killed or exiled under suspicion of poisoning Stalin. So the only “doctors” left are hacks afraid to give any kind of bad news. As the film continues, we can see that something similar has clearly happened in the field of politics. Stalin’s successor — Georgy Malenkov, played by Jeffrey Tambor — is a self-important numbskull who clearly got to his position by failing upwards, surrounded by a bunch of backstabbing bureaucrats too afraid to rock the boat.

(Side note: Watch for the director’s son, Emilio Iannucci, who gets a memorable cameo role as one of the doctors.)

The lion’s share of the movie concerns Stalin’s inner circle — mostly Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and Molotov (Michael Palin) — trying to jockey for position. The trick, of course, is that if any one of them gets to be too powerful or too dangerous, he’s the next one to catch a bullet. This is what happens when you have a government that doesn’t nurture the best and brightest, but those with the cowardice to get in line. In short order, you get a generation of leaders more concerned with saving face and staying alive, rather than policy or patriotism.

Case in point: So many people come flooding in to pay their respects to Stalin, and the security detail is so stupidly desperate to keep order, that 1,500 Russians end up dead within hours. Fifteen hundred of their countrymen dead for no reason at all, and our main cast of characters can only think about who’s getting the blame for it. Nothing else matters but saving their own skin.

This brings us to a fascinating wrinkle with regard to Stalin’s children, because of course everyone’s eager to score political points by sucking up to them. Trouble is, Vasily Stalin (Rupert Friend) is a volatile maniac with more vodka than blood in his system. So trying to keep him contained while also keeping him happy turns out to be a tough balancing act. More importantly, there’s his sister.

Andrea Riseborough plays Svetlana Stalina, who brings some desperately needed heart to this movie. She’s grieving for her dead father and looking for any kind of comfort, but all she can get (aside from the violent drunken ravings of her brother) are two-faced shows of sympathy from Stalin’s former cohorts. Everyone in government is offering hollow reassurance in the hopes of currying favor, and Svetlana isn’t the least bit shy about calling bullshit. She’s seen it all before and there’s nothing anyone in government can do to make her believe their crocodile tears, but that doesn’t change the fact that she is genuinely deep in mourning and her position means she could be in danger. All of this serves as wonderful contrast, showing us in no uncertain terms that our main cast of characters are a bunch of heartless dipshit cowards.

Another badly needed breath of fresh air is Jason Isaacs in the role of Generalissimo Georgy Zhukov. It was so wonderfully amusing to see the Russian ministers puff out their chests only to face someone who really is every bit as tough and ruthless as he thinks he is. There is no subterfuge with this character, no ambition for any more power than he already has, and no patience for anyone else’s bullshit. Plus, with a literal army behind him, he’s probably the only one in the cast with zero fear of pissing off anyone or getting assassinated. He’s a blunt instrument and an unrepentant bastard, which contrasts with the rest of the cast to uproarious effect.

Another noteworthy supporting character is Olga Kurylenko, here playing a concert pianist whose friends and family were murdered by Stalin. Such is her hatred that she would literally go to hell and take everyone else with her just for the chance to spit in his eye. It’s a small but memorable turn, and that’s definitely a step up, considering that Kurylenko is typically such a void of screen presence. Even as it is, Kurylenko’s performance is so static that it’s mostly her scene partners making her look good.

The rest of the cast speaks for itself. Of course Michael Palin is a comedy legend and Jeffrey Tambor’s schtick is well proven. Simon Russell Beale is perhaps more famous for his decades of live theatrical work in the UK, but he proves with every second of screen time why he’s a legitimately great talent. And Steve Buscemi? Come on. It’s a story about a bunch of deceitful (literal) backstabbers and he’s Mr. Pink, for fuck’s sake.

But of course the real star here is Armando Iannucci. Everything that gave him such a stellar reputation as a satirical grandmaster is on full display here. Without his pitch-black sense of humor, his wickedly incisive wit, his pitch-perfect comic timing, and his dizzying talent for wordplay, we would not have a movie. But what’s more impressive is the level of violence here that I haven’t seen or heard of in Iannucci’s other works. He doesn’t shy away from depicting families getting torn apart or footsoldiers storming in to ransack everything in sight. We even get a couple scenes in which people are gunned down right in front of us, in gruesome detail. Not only was this an essential part of establishing the stakes, but it’s also a huge reason why the comedy is so darkly hilarious.

The Death of Stalin is a masterful work of political satire. It’s a timely statement about what happens when nations are run by those with no honor, integrity, honesty, patriotism, or regard for anything but their own interests. And the statement is all the more damning because it’s so savagely funny. This one is deeply intelligent, superbly acted, and utterly merciless, definitely not a film to be missed.

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