I didn’t think one of the funniest movies I’d see this year so far would be about a brutal totalitarian state—but then I saw The Death of Stalin.
The film is a dark comedy-horror about the absurd contradictions, ruthless power struggles, and heartbreaking tragedies that come with living in an authoritarian state ruled by paranoia and fear. Don’t be fooled into thinking this a dry history lesson; filled with brilliantly savage one-liners, slapstick gags, and quite a lot of swearing, this is a very funny film about a not-so-funny topic.
Co-written and directed by the Scottish satirist Armando Ianucci—the main creative force behind the scathing political satires The Thick of It, In the Loop, and Veep—The Death of Stalin takes place in Moscow, 1953, immediately before and after the titular death. When Joseph Stalin—the head chairman of a cult-like Soviet Russia—collapses in his bedroom and receives no help from his staff (the guards being too afraid of the consequences of interrupting him), the members of his inner circle immediately scramble to fill the power vacuum left behind. The useless medical help, begrudgingly called in later, won’t save Stalin either—he has either executed or deported all the competent doctors in Russia.
In comparison to Iannucci’s other political satires, the stakes in this film are much higher. The scheming and bureaucratic screw-ups here could easily cost a character their lives. This is also a film with a much more traditional approach to direction; his other works have all been filmed in a documentary, cinema-verite style, using roving handheld cameras and drab, muted colours. Here, the director uses cinematic camera movement, style, and colour, befitting of the excess of Stalin’s regime. The comedic tone is similar to that of Monty Python’s bizarre humour (Michael Palin, a Python troupe member, acts in the film), but with a little more grounding in reality. Ianucci’s biting, mile-a-minute dialogue remains consistent: “I’m the peacemaker”, a character states at one point, “and I’ll fuck up anyone who gets in my way”.
There’s a killer cast of seasoned veterans here, all of whom bring their A-game; even if you have no idea who they are, their talent will become clear as the film progresses. Steve Buscemi and Simon Russel Beale are the two main players—playing the underestimated, shrewd political operator, Nikita Kruschev, and the violent, venal secret police chief, Lavrentiy Beria, respectively. Buscemi, often cast as a down-on-his-luck screw-up, gets to play one of his smarter characters in Kruschev, who comes off looking oddly heroic, since Kruschev wants to be a man of reform, aiming to bring at least some liberalisation to the extremist state. Beale, as Beria, is absolutely chilling as an otherwise mediocre man, who has been allowed to indulge his sadism through unchecked power. Jeffrey Tambor plays Stalin’s planned successor, Georgy Menkov: he’s a relatively self-aware but pathetic, constantly minimized push-over, who tiptoes around uncertainly in ill-fitting suits and men’s corsets (all of which make the accusations of sexual harassment against the actor, and his subsequent removal from the marketing campaign, a little easier to stomach).
The men aren’t portrayed as strong, or particularly intelligent; they’re squabbling, small-minded, relatively ordinary narcissists, who just so happen to hold massive amounts of political power. Andrea Riseborough, playing Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, receives a tragic arc; she’s one of the few non-politicians to see through the inner circle’s transparently self-serving motivation and dishonesty, but is powerless to stop their ensuing chaos.
Hilariously, the actors don’t attempt the awkward Russian-accented English that we have come to expect in most period pieces of this type. Instead, we get the actors speaking in their native accents, giving us such wonderful creations as Nikita Kruschev with a neurotic Brooklyn accent, and Jason Isaac’s profane North London tone, for his version of General Georgy Zhukov. It’s intentionally jarring, and creates an interesting effect—it heightens the absurdity and sense of artificiality within the world, and yet actually makes the characters feel like they come from different regions and places. This is in stark contrast to the imprecise feel of most “foreign” historical movie accents. It also serves to connect the characters and events more closely to our Western world, making some clear parallels with our modern, bumbling authoritarian bullies.
Ianucci deals with some very grim material here: widespread terror, mass executions, even people betraying their own friends and family. The movie exhibits a general cynicism towards high-level politics that unfortunately rings true in today’s world. The country’s social structure forces the characters to live in a perpetual state of falsehood, and to reconcile seemingly contradictory thoughts in order to stay alive; for example, being emotionally torn apart by your wife’s baseless imprisonment, but still staying loyal to your leader and his ideology. While The Death of Stalin has a lot of funny moments, there’s a deep undercurrent of ugliness and sorrow to the film.
What stops the film from feeling exploitative or tasteless—as it has been accused of being—is that it doesn’t joke about dictatorships and its victims; it just finds the continued existence of these systems to be the sad, sick joke. Ianucci captures the up-is-down cognitive dissonance of living in an autocratic state with brutal insight, and although the movie doesn’t successfully land all its punches, its hits far outweigh its misses. You don’t need to have a comprehensive knowledge of Stalinism or totalitarianism to understand the movie, or find it funny, and the parallels with today’s political climate should be obvious to anyone.
The Death of Stalin has, predictably, been banned in Russia. All the more reason to see it.
The Death of Stalin is in cinemas now.