The Death of Stalin
Directed by Armando Iannucci
Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs…
1 hour, 46 minutes
Rated R, 2017
Perhaps it is inevitable that great expectations are betrayed.
As in revolution, so in film.
I have been waiting for Iannucci’s farce The Death of Stalin since I first came across the trailer in the summer of 2017. It seemed like a film tailor-made for me: a comedy about the ills of the Soviet system and the pitfalls of power.
The marketing team for this film is absolutely brilliant and never breaks character. They actually contacted me on Facebook!
While it was not what I expected, this film was definitely worth the wait. While I did not laugh as much as other patrons, either because I am inured to Soviet madness or because I memorized the trailer, I had a giddy smile for the full two hours.
Is It Accurate?
Much has been written about the historicity of the movie. While the links included here provide a good background and some spoilers, I would highly recommend Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, which was my main reference going into the theater. While I know quite a bit about the Russian Revolution, my interest tapers off after 1929. Those who have followed this blog for a while will know why.
The film compresses years before and after Stalin’s death for narrative purposes. Iannucci extends the Great Terror of the 1930s through to 1953, again for purposes of storytelling. Where the film diverges from history, it does not distract. The use of subtitles to introduce characters and set the scene saves the film from cumbersome exposition.
The only part I took umbrage with was the mass execution of Stalin’s dacha staff following his death, which I am 99% sure did not happen. The film makes its point about the brutality of the Stalinist state well before this; the violence seems extraneous to the storytelling.
The film excels in its recreation of locales and personalities. It captures an incredible amount of detail about the players involved: from Stalin’s sadistic all-night movie marathons to the “Black Maria” cars used by the NKVD (later called the KGB) to the strange fate of Mrs. Molotov.
Is It Funny?
Understatement, nuance, suggestion–not the words I expected to describe this film, but the only words I can use.
While there are certainly over-the-top, grotesquely absurd set-ups and gags, some of the funniest moments of the film are also its quietest. Without giving anything away, pay attention to the final few seconds to see the best example of this.
The best slapstick in the film comes early, with the arrival of potential successors, one by one, to find the dying Stalin lying in a puddle of urine. It feels like a stage-play in the best way possible. Potty humor is rarely paired with such high-level political satire.
How Was the Acting?
The most spot-on historical portrait is that of secret police chief Lavrety Beria, played by Simon Russell Beale. Beria resurrects as the vile toad he really was: serial rapist, pedophile, and all-around sadist. There are few movie villains who can provoke such fear and loathing as Beale’s Beria.
The closest to a protagonist the movie has is Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev. Buscemi plays Khrushchev as a slimy, yet likable, bureaucrat. Khrushchev is ruthless, without being vicious, and is the only character who realizes the insanity of their lives.
When a courageous young dissident declares that she is unafraid because she will have “everlasting life,” Buscemi’s Khrushchev laughs, flustered, asking himself “Who would want everlasting life?”
While the allegations against Tambor temper enjoyment of his performance, he does shine as Stalin’s ineffectual and unprepared deputy, Malenkov. Malenkov’s increasingly Stalinesque appearance and behavior mark the course of the movie.
The only performance that struck a wrong note for me was Andrea Riseborough’s turn as Stalin’s daughter Svetlana. While Riseborough plays a convincing, flighty “little bird,” as Beria calls Svetlana, the real Svetlana Aliluyeva strikes me as a woman of great strength, if deeply troubled. Riseborough’s Svetlana delights, however, in her attempts to protect and control her drunken megalomaniac of a brother, Vasily (played by a wonderfully coarse Rupert Friend).
Jason Isaacs steals the show as a gun-slinging, name-taking Field-Marshal Zhukov. Zhukov talks about his AK-47 the way most men talk about their wives. Go see the film just for this performance, if nothing else.
What Does It Mean?
And this is where I am stumped.
The film is obviously a condemnation of Stalin and the Soviet Union. But I think it is much more.
Yes, it has scenarios that only could have happened (and really did happen) in Stalin’s USSR.
Its understatement, however, makes it possible to extend the film’s critique to any system that depends on one person. Stalin is a minor presence on screen, dying after a few minutes, but as a corpse is just as powerful and terrifying to his would-be successors.
The madness of the system, as Iannucci shows, is that the whims and orders of one person can mean the difference between life and death for thousands:
With Stalin’s death, execution orders are reversed. Four prisoners are shot in the head as they themselves cry “Long Live Stalin!”, while a fifth, having learned that Stalin is dead, cries “Long Live Malenkov.” The remaining five are reprieved, because their commutations arrive between the officer shooting the fifth and reloading for the sixth.
While any person has flaws, the persons this system produces are particularly venal, cruel, and weak. Molotov, played by Michael Palin, is so devoted to the Party and to Stalin that he believes his wife’s imprisonment and torture were justified, even after Beria confesses he fabricated the evidence. He succeeds in the system because he loses all will and thought of his own.
The idea of putting absolute trust and faith in a Beria, a Malenkov, or even a Khrushchev, the way that Molotov believes in Stalin, ought to terrify viewers.
While it is not clear, leaving the movie, to what Iannucci recommends we cleave, I think he gives us the same message as the Psalmist:
“Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.”
(Psalm 146:3-4, NIV)
4.5/5 stars: Beautifully executed with an all-star cast, but not the funniest movie of all time.
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: Secret police and a pedophile secret police chief.
3/5 ick-factor: I winced during the removal of Stalin’s brain by embalmers. Cremation scene at end is medically inaccurate but not too graphic.