Review: The Death of Stalin

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Few filmmakers can tread the line between humour and horror as tactfully as Armando Iannucci. For much of the film, the audience is caught in a half-dazed state, the grin of last shot’s slapstick comedy slowly petering into a grimace. In one moment, the characters are complaining about dry cleaning bills after kneeling in their leader’s urine; in the next, ten doctors have been abducted, lined up and shot. This is a morally ambivalent film, encouraging viewers to relish in the paranoia and anxiety of Moscow’s politicians, but also packing a potent indictment of totalitarianism and censorship. The film’s quality, however, is distinctly unequivocal – this is challenging, brilliant cinema.

Iannucci on set during production in London

The year is 1953, and Stalin is dead. 30 years of brutal suppression by the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police force, has left the Russian people fearful and traumatised. Now, his most senior advisors are clamouring for his position in the most undignified, unscrupulous and amoral ways imaginable. Emotional blackmail, subterfuge and an attempted coup d’état are just some of the techniques used to thwart and undermine former political allies. Jeffrey Tambor’s Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s deputy, has become the de facto leader of the Soviet Union. But Malenkov is weak, and soon Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev and Simon Russell Beale’s Lavrentiy Beria (head of the NKVD) are engaged in a political war to win over the party and take out the other.

Hopefully this vague synopsis is enough to inform any potential viewer that The Death of Stalin is not a typical comedy. Its humour lies in the very real threat of a knock on the door and a gunshot to the head. The film’s opening scene makes it clear that in this society death is trivial, and justice arbitrary. Murder is enacted on a gross, perverse scale, to any and to all who deviate from the party line. In other words, the mere suggestion that our characters may have deviated from said line is enough to trigger a fumbling panic of rushed apologies and mumbled backtrackings, largely to Beale’s terrifying Beria: the unreadable, scheming spymaster.

Stalin spends much of the film “lying in a puddle of his own indignity” whilst his deputies feign intense sadness at their leader’s demise

Hence treasonous conversations are interrupted, grovelling excuses servilely produced, and allegiance to Stalin dogmatically recited, all while a game of pathetic and disastrous backstabbing is conducted behind closed doors. We guffaw and pity these men in equal measure, and Iannucci is never crude enough to trivialise or make light of Stalin’s very real purges. Comedy is the means through which Iannucci focalises the insanity of the situation.

Indeed, Iannucci has been able to evoke something of the gladiatorial, a modern Greek tragedy of rise and demise. The amusement of watching these men flounder into and out of power is offset by the empathy we feel at their eventual downfall. The audience bays for blood, but is left with a bitter taste in the mouth when the true power of violence and intimidation is brutally realised in a graphic lynching. Khrushchev and his cronies lose all sense of morality as they are collectively goaded to exploit, plot and scheme their way into notoriety, and then face the audience with the look of a toddler who has just understood the gravity of their actions. The Death of Stalin may be a funny film, but it’s hardly an edifying one.

Beale’s Lavrentiy Beria and Tambor’s Georgy Malenkov scheme their way to the top of the Soviet Government

One tired trope the film happily abstains from is indulging in colourful, caricatured Russian accents. Hence, Khrushchev speaks NY-inflected English, Jason Isaac’s Soviet General has a no-nonsense Yorkshire husk, and Beale’s Beria channels the aristocratic English synonymous with iconic movie villains (of which Beale’s performance should now surely be included). Indeed, Beale as Beria dominates the screen, a terrifying, waddling figure that wields absolute power and invokes absolute fear within his victims. Steve Buscemi’s Khrushchev is also played memorably, as Buscemi exercises facial expressions ranging from specious mourning to quaking panic, smug contempt and everything in-between.

Contradiction is a fitting motif of this film. “Comrade” means enemy, power only a guarantee of deposition, and unanimous votes are carried non-unanimously. Iannucci focuses his characteristically cynical lens on Soviet Russia, and it is glorious. The jokes are unexpected and obscene, the satire irreverent, the political commentary explicit and the directing (and classical score) comic gold. The Death of Stalin gets five stars.