The Death Of Stalin
Armando Iannucci, the undisputed King of political comedy, faces his biggest challenge ever with this, an adaptation of a somewhat obscure French graphic novel. Having successfully tackled and eviscerated the barely hidden realities of both British and American politics, and mixing the two with the wonderful In The Loop, to then take on subject matter such as this, and a political system such as this, seems ripe for being a step too far. The potential pitfalls are obvious: how to handle a man such as Stalin, and the people that surrounded him, and the things that they did, while inserting the kind profanity laden black humour that so characterises The Thick Of It and Veep? Well, you co-write with some excellent names and you get some real heavy-hitters, both in terms of “regular” acting and comedy, to populate the roles. A good base to start with, but does The Death Of Stalin manage to walk the tightrope between mass mirth and mass murder?
After 30 years of his totalitarian rule, Joseph Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) dies. His inner circle of cronies are left to pick up the pieces, and are soon jostling for power and position: weak-minded Deputy Leader Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor); scheming Secretary Khrushchev (Steve Buschemi); ideologically blinded Foreign Secretary Molotov (Michael Palin); and psychotic secret police head Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Taking in the likes of Stalin’s drunken son (Rupert Friend), his doting daughter (Andrea Riseborough), dissident piano player Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) and legendary General Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), in this game of thrones, you either win, or get a bullet to the brain (before you get taken out of the photographs).
The Death Of Stalin opens with a contrasting look at its title character, who he was, and how he was perceived as being. A recreation of the famous story involving pianist Maria Yudina – whose concerto Stalin was allegedly listening to when he died – is contrasted with a look at the dictator himself, casually signing extensive death notices while carousing with his closet cronies, more low-life gangster than titanic tyrant. On one side of the story he is this demigod figure whose wrath is described in almost Biblical terns, who has the little people scurrying about to win his favour. And in the other he is a petty, vindictive, small man, who just happens to have the power of life and death over everyone: even the motley collection of desperate individuals at his table.
The film largely frames itself then as an essay on perception, and how, often enough, what lies beneath a pristine surface is extremely ugly. Maybe it’s as simple as the Stalinite inner circle having to avoid their dying leader’s urine as they hoist his failing body into bed, but The Death Of Stalin makes its point, that what we see hides some very undignified stuff. Perception is everything: when Beria stands up from Stalin’s chair and positions himself elsewhere when someone else comes to see the dear leaders body; when Khrushchev allows a mass shooting to go ahead because he knows it will make Beria look bad; when Malenkov tries to ape photographs of Stalin so he’ll look as benevolent as the tyrant.
It’s a story about good guys, bad guys and the relativity between them: because, once you get right down to it, there are no real good guys here, just a lot of awful ones, some of whom are slightly less awful than others, and maybe that’s only because they might make you chuckle on occasion.
And I mean that: despite any pretentions to the contrary from the promotional material, this isn’t really a comedy. There are jokes, plenty of them, and all familiar fare for anyone who has seen any of Iannucci’s other work. Foul-mouthed rants, laddish humour among political compatriots, and the essence of “spin” being applied to a variety of crises, it all pops up, and it’s all very effective. But this is a film that could easily remove the moments of levity, or most of them, and you would be left with a deadly serious drama about the aftermath of Stalin’s death, and how that inner circle repositioned itself around new players.
It’s the dichotomy that’s important. It’s so hard to mix this kind of comedy and seriousness and not be left with a tone deaf mess: The Death Of Stalin tries its damndest, but it can’t escape the vortex. It’s a film where you easily find yourself laughing out loud at some of the posturing, the embarrassing behind-the-scenes shenanigans the history books leave out or even the goofy physical comedy asides that pop up frequently, but every time I did, I was all too quickly reminded that the principals are all monsters: be it genocide, sexual assault, political repression or just simple crimes against humanity, there are no blameless individuals among those eyeing up Stalin’s chair. Thus, The Death Of Stalin becomes an almost uncomfortable experience in a way, in that the humour makes you feel…wrong, off, like if you ever catch yourself laughing at someone’s comical misfortune, or reacting stone-faced to some attempt at levity.
But I don’t want to be misunderstood: this flaw – and it is a flaw, of a kind – does not ruin The Death Of Stalin. Because its depiction of those madcap days after Stalin’s death is still intensely moving, able to grab a hold of your heart and make you understand that the Soviet Union was more than just a faceless behemoth: there were people, real people, at its helm and under its boot, and there but for the grace of God were the former.
The Death Of Stalin frames itself especially around three of these individuals, the most important being Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s fearsome and loathsome NKVD head, played with oodles of creepiness and tangible menace by Simon Russell Beale. It’s through him that The Death Of Stalin transcends its comedy base: Beria, who likes to get intimately involved with the torture of political prisoners, exults in mocking those about to be executed, “lists” anyone who even catches half of a glimpse of his weakness and who casually rapes any unfortunate young woman who catches his eye (and gives them flowers afterwards) is undoubtedly the world of the worst. He’s a psychopath, who has lucked into being in a position where he can indulge his psychopathy as he pleases, and he scares the bejesus out of even the other members of the inner circle. And he’s written and played wonderfully to capture just that kind of mood, doubly so, as the film attempts to frame his pitiful efforts to alter his own perception, and became a man of the people to a populace who use his name as a by-word for fear. In a film populated by monsters, you need one King Monster to be the focal point, and Beria is it.
I suppose you need a “hero” to go up against him too, and The Death Of Stalin has Steve Buschemi’s Nikita Khrushchev. By the end of proceedings, you might be forgiven for rooting for him, this softer-spoken guy who seems to have a genuine desire to reform a broken system, but you only have to cast your mind back to his first scene, wherein he cheerfully reminisces about torturing German prisoners of war at Stalingrad, to understand who you are really dealing with. Buschemi, who has great comic timing alongside her long-since established acting talent, has a ball with Khrushchev, with his scheming, his efforts to avoid Beria’s wrath and his truly awkward attempts to cozy up to Stalin’s politically useful children. Students of history will know how it all turns out, but even so there are interesting twists and turns to follow on the way there.
Then there’s the limp middleman, in the form of Jeffrey Tambor’s Georgy Malenkov, the utterly unworthy deputy to Stalin, who really wants to emulate the public perception of his dead master, but lacks the grit, ruthlessness and will to do so. “No problem” he says, when Vasily Stalin wants to give a drunken speech at his fathers funeral. When it’s pointed out how bad an idea this is, he changes: “I meant ‘No, problem’”. Tambor’s long since proven he can do comedy and drama, and Malenkov gives him the chance to do both in spades, being a wonderful sad sack to guffaw at as well as a spineless worm to utterly despise at crucial moments. “You can’t trust a weak man” says Khrushchev about Malenkov, and in a film populated by nothing but schemers, it is a damning indictment.
One can’t stop there though, with Iannucci showcasing his skill at throwing in a huge range of supporting characters who all seem fully realised even with limited screen time. Among them are Rupert Friend’s Vasily, the worthless alcoholic son of the dead dictator, who wants to say a speech at the funeral while covering up the destruction of the national ice hockey team (that he manages) in a place crash. There’s Jason Isaac’s Zhukov, the closest the film gets to a Malcolm Tucker type, who enters proceedings late but provides some great no-nonsense weight throwing. There’s Stalin’s morose daughter Svetlana, played with decent mopiness and naiveté by Andrea Riseborough, who late-on provides a suitably appropriate cipher for Beria’s ugliness. And Michael Palin also excels as the comically indoctrinated Molotov, who ties himself in knots trying to justify the death of his wife in one of Stalin’s purges, and then does the opposite when it turns out she’s alive. And Paul Whitehouse, who I haven’t seen in a while, is there too, and he’s as funny as he ever was.
It’s the interaction between all of them where things really shine of course. Aside from Iannucci’s patented “locker-room”-esque back and forth between the male leads (and it is a man’s world, in more ways than one), the sheer hypocrisy and sycophancy comes through so strongly, in every terrified moment when one character chances his arm and tries to find out which of his companions are true believers and zealots, or if they are only just putting on a facade of the sake of Stalin, and later for everyone else. Of course, the answer is, likely enough, that none of them is a zealot, but they are so trapped, so caught up in this labyrinth of secrets where the wrong move is nearly always the last one, that they can’t easily contemplate the idea of change. The Death Of Stalin may struggle a bit with tone, but it’s script is still a dazzling construction of character and character interactions.
Visually, Iannucci keeps the up close and personal, almost docudrama style of his previous works, and doesn’t shy away from brutal depictions of repressive violence. The crisp, civilised surrounds of Stalin’s dacha contrast well with the grimly cramped confines of the NKVD holding cells, where Beria’ personal form of evil is showcased vividly. There are some inspired sequences here, like the inner circle’s carousing being framed against the concerto being recorded in the middle of the night to appease Stalin and the latest listed being rounded up. Later, a liquidation of a dacha becomes a black farce of obscene physical comedy, while central committee meetings always have their proposals carried by overwhelming support, Marenko refusing to announce “unanimously” until every hand is up.
Ever and anon in such moments, Iannucci finds grounds for humour: one man, thinking he is about to be picked up and shot, tells his wife he loves her and urges her to say whatever she needs to say to survive; the knock at the door turns out be someone coming to fetch him to conduct the aforementioned concerto in the middle of the night. Other examples abound: over and over, those about to be shot are heard to shout “Long live Stalin!” until one exasperated guard tersely informs his victims that “He’s dead, Malenkov is in charge” (no one shouts “Long live Malenkov!”). Vasily’s awful coaching of what’s left of the ice hockey team comes as he drunkenly attempts to cover up its previous incarnations deaths (a very real incident): he later writes a God-awful speech praising his fathers unifying effect on the Soviet Union, comparing its constituent nations to baby bears. As Stalin lays dying, the inner circle lament that all the best doctors have been sent to the Gulag; they later surmise that if the bad doctors fail to save him, he won’t care, and if they succeed, they can’t have been that bad after all. A hassled concert director, forced to re-record a concerto for the boss, tries to reassure the crowd that “No one is going to be shot” before snapping at leaving customers: “Sit down, do not defy me!”
There are just desserts and unjust escapes: a show trial sequence late on is a brilliant look at the undignified reality of repressive government, as men who adorn the pages of history books as giants of their era take part in a hack job prosecution in a barn, that ends, as they always did, with someone getting unceremoniously shot in the head. The violence goes beyond this of course, and The Death Of Stalin is at pains, especially in one crucial section surrounding the mobs of people travelling to Moscow for the funeral, to point out that, for the people depicted, Stalin’s adage of “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic” was less of a sociopathic aside and more of a philosophy for life (and death with it).
Comedy is tragedy, plus time, or so the old saying goes. And if that old saying is true, then The Death Of Stalin is ripe enough. Nothing should be off limits for humour of course – no bigger fan of the Hitler videos let me tell you – but I only wish that Iannucci could more firmly choose what he wants to do: to make a comedy, or to make a serious historical drama. You can do both, but the contrasting poles simply dilute the effect of the other.
But it is still very much worth watching. In an era when the “strong man” archetype seems to be back in fashion when it comes to political leadership, Iannucci’s film serves as an timely reminder that such things are always a façade: that the would-be tyrants and oligarchs are just men at the end of the day, and usually tired, pathetic weak old men to boot. One day, in the future, they’ll make a film like this about Trump. It’ll probably just be a documentary. Until then, you can make do with this, not quite a triumph for the director, but a far from unworthy addition to his expanding collection of excellent political satire. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of eOne Films and Gaumont).