The Death of Stalin
Director: Armando Iannucci
Based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury (creator) and Thierry Robin (illustrator)
Imagine Stanley Kubrick making a movie about the death of Stalin rather than the Cold War (‘Dr Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ 1964) then turn up the violence dial till it will go no further. ‘Death of Stalin’ is definitely located at the black hole end of black comedy.
What is most blood-chilling about ‘The Death of Stalin’ is that not for one minute are we allowed to forget the bloody sadism of the reign of this despicable character even though the laughs are flowing freely because of the hilarious dialogue and characterisations.
The film starts with a stunning orchestra recital and then swiftly moves to a ‘jolly chaps’ scene of Stalin and his inner circle. They are (over) eating, (over) drinking, (and way over) talking about the many tortures, deaths and rapes they have been responsible for in a business-as-usual manner. When the night’s hit-list is eventually brought out and the names of those who are to be killed and tortured is fine-tuned, Stalin notes that a particular couple are to be shot, ‘her first, with him watching’ and another victim’s body is to be taken and left in the pulpit of his church. When the band of merry psychopaths finally disperse ‒ after watching a cowboy movie with their leader ‒ it is also divulged that one of this intimate party (Vyacheslav Molotov played by Michael Palin) is also on tonight’s list.
Delicious about ‘The Death of Stalin’ is that director Armando Iannucci has allowed this group of stellar American and English actors to ham-up their own accents for the film. Ultimately, you have a group of Russian men speaking like English and American goons; hugging, kissing and toasting each other while they wise-crack and position themselves like paranoid gangsters.
Fear oozes in this depiction of powerful men in Russian history, all recognising that the death of Stalin could be both opportune or life-threatening, depending on how they manage themselves and their alliances from this point. A friend from Columbia once told me that her country was so violent because the criminals not only carried guns but were also high on cocaine. I wondered if this period of Russian history is so bloody because the players were smashed on vodka as they made their political decisions. A slippery morality, psychosis and a pre-disposition towards violence are well recorded by-products of substance abuse.
Malenkov (an absurdly pompous Jeffrey Tambor) immediately assumes charge, his hair becoming progressively darker and figure progressively slimmer – he takes to wearing a corset – as Stalin’s funeral approaches. Nikita Khruschev (Steve Buscemi) is quick to start schmoozing and dealing, while Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) is depicted as the most conniving of all. First on the scene after Stalin’s cerebral hemorrage, Beria collects every incriminating file he can on the other members of this tight inner circle. The film palpitates with political ambition and fear.
My favourite/unfavoutite character in ‘The Death of Stalin’ is Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). Zhukov looks like a militarised Baron Von Trapp; so handsome and debonair right down to the scar on his face, until he opens his mouth and sounds like a character from ‘Minder’.
This film takes the liberty of imploding a slab of history into the night of Stalin’s death and the period until his funeral. It depicts Zhokov and his military supporting Khruschev and out-positioning Beria. Khruschev gets rid of Beria quickly after and we know that it is only time before the clueless Malenkov meets a similarly violent end.
Think of a group of bureaucratic serial killers who find themselves leaderless and who scramble for the top job. Now add hilarious dialogue.
Impeccable set design.
‘The Death of Stalin’ has been banned in Russia.
This is not a film for children.