When I originally read the title, “The Death of Stalin,” I said to myself this can only be a zany comedy or a really, really depressing drama. Beria and Khrushchev as lead characters of what? Then I saw the film. Hats off to writer/director Armando Iannucci — also the creator of HBO’s Emmy-winning series Veep — who has created a film of deeply dark dramatization that tears away the Iron Curtain to expose a farcical power struggle among Stalin’s cronies after the Soviet leader’s death in 1953.
Fear, corruption, and sadism careen around this political satire, set in the aftermath of Stalin’s death in the former Soviet Union. Frankly, I thought about waiting a day or two to write this review in case I was too effusive with praise. But walking out of the theater it struck me: The Death of Stalin is something akin to the mad-capped “Noises Off” (1992) meets “The Producers” (2005), with a splash of evil comedy. I couldn’t resist the urge to recommend this incredible piece.
The film captures the Soviet Weltanschauung at a pivotal and historic transition — an era and episode in Cold War history that amounted to nothing more than a mask of human treachery — but in this case, amplified by the audience’s stunned reaction of uncontrollable, wicked laughter. Iannucci delivers a collective, therapeutic moment for the unimaginable pain caused by 20th Century Russian tyranny in the name of anti-Western idealism.
Moreover, the film opens with Mozart played in a Russian concert hall, and those managing the performance learn — via a direct call from Stalin — that He, The Commandant, would like a recording of the concert. Trouble is, there is no recording. Knowing the dictator’s wishes, and facing certain death if they don’t deliver, the only way the managers can save themselves is to recreate the performance. They bribe the show’s prima donna (who is, by the way, a Stalin-hating pianist) with 20,000 rubles, have the orchestra replay the concerto, and fill the now-vacant orchestra hall with “large” people to absorb the wild acoustics.
That’s just the opening of the picture, and off we go!
This is one of the smartest, most entertaining films I have seen in a decade. It transforms comedy into dark reality combining the pace of a British farce with the reach and breadth of a meaningful epic. It is expose ́ and lampoon rolled into one movie, revealing the origins of Russia’s diabolic post-Word War Two reign along the way. Viewed through Iannuci’s lens, rape, murder, and torture are mere pastimes that undergird hollow Red party ideals of unity in this post-Stalin world. Unity as well as its greatest fear, which is not the murder at its rotten core, but the fear of factionalism, the unforgivable sin of the West — a mass delusion of human value.
When the brutal leader of the Soviet Union has a stroke, the fragile regime is plunged into darkness, where an uncertainty and near civil war threatens to leaves an even worse legacy—if possible. The struggle for supreme power will determine the fate of the nation and of the world. The irony is, it all really happened. Speaking of dead Stalin, the crisis point of the film provides a supreme moment in comedy. With Stalin’s body prostrate in his own feces and urine, his commissars must navigate to lift his corpse out of the filth and into his bed. The assassin in Woody Allen’s Love and Death tiptoeing around Napoleon on his couch is no match.
The amazing cast is comprised of A-listers, not your standard Hollywood personality cult feeding Enquirer coverage. Ergo, the ensemble rises to Iannucci’s sharp, witty script and his masterful direction. I would need to double the length of this review to truly capture the strength of performances. Rupert Friend as Vasily, the crazed, drunken son of Stalin is amazing. Steve Buscemi, who bears no resemblance to Khrushchev captures the rank, blind ambition, of the future leader who turns out to be “the reformer.” Jason Isaacs portrays the off-the-charts funny Russian General Zhukov. Then there is Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana, the demanding but totally powerless daughter and heir of Stalin, ever-cognizant of anyone mentioning possible “harm” that might come to her, but choosing to be left in the dark. Jeffrey Tambor is brilliant as the delicate dictator, Georgy Malenkov. Simon Russell Beale is Lavrenti Beria — Academy Award, period.
Add to that, the cast of evil Russians, like a gaggle of actors in an obscure Pirandello play, speaking in British accents and often using the vernacular and getting away with it! Yes, iron-fisted Russian thugs saying f—k-off! The climax of the film comes with the star cast carrying Stalin’s casket in shallow pageantry of the funeral procession before the adoration of thousands of average Russians. As the coffin is lifted, Malenkov, concerned he might drop his end, says, “I have bad balance.”
As for the filmmaking itself, the editing is spot on and enhances the timing of the jokes. The cuts hit as timely punchlines, with Soviet soldiers in the background of many scenes, gunning down their enemies on “the list.” The music, which is mostly Russian triumphalism, mocks the very not-regal nature of those devils of destruction. I could only think of “The Sopranos” and “Goodfellas” when the soundtrack lover croons during a brutal murder.
In our present world of bipolar political discourse, even in light of current media-versus-Trump conspiracies, there remains no parody of the worst of America’s failings. That’s because American misdeeds hardly match the pathology of the Communist regime under Stalin and the accompanying cast of Soviet animals. The level of killing and sheer obscenity of that era and that place leaves even the most grizzled critic speechless.
Iannucci starts with that haunting backdrop and makes an entertaining film! Only “Monty Python” could come close. And for the record, Iannucci tapped Michael Palin to play Molotov of all people — a man of and for the Party when necessary or in support of reform when it is the wish of the dead Stalin. Never locked into an iota of conviction, Palin cleverly plays the man whose options change mid-sentence to play to the crowd. Hilarious!
But here is this reviewer’s concern: I saw the film with fewer than ten people in the audience and that worries me, knowing that the production was made as a cautionary warning for our own times, tracing the slippery slope from political disagreement to dictatorship. The film’s Chimpanzee politics remind us why we turn to comedy when confronted by the evils of men, as Frans de Waal would suggest, ”a thin veneer hiding an otherwise selfish and brutish nature.”
In the end, the only real review Iannucci needs is this: the knowledge that in January the Russian government banned the film from being released, and a Russian official reportedly described the film as extremist.