Through no actual intent, we managed to follow up 1962’s “Doctor Zhivago” with 2017’s “The Death of Stalin”. I am a big fan of Armando Iannucci’s work (specifically “In the Loop”, a 2009 film he directed starring Peter Capaldi prior to his turn as Doctor Who). In “The Death of Stalin,” Iannucci provides a satirical look at the fallout from the death of USSR leader Joseph Stalin in 1953; and, in so doing, made for one of the best dark comedies I have seen in years.
If you have seen “In the Loop” or, perhaps more well-known now, HBO’s Veep¸ you likely already understand Iannucci’s humor. Often dark and pessimistic, his works always have a knack for great dialogue, situational humor, and often points at the world’s least vulnerable (its should-be leaders) in a way that makes them out to be mostly idiots. It’s a fantastic formula, largely due to intelligent writing.
“The Death of Stalin”, whether historically accurate or not, paints a mood of institutional despair. The movie opens with a terrified music director who has just received a request from Stalin for a recording of that night’s performance, only to find out that the performance was not recorded and is just wrapping up. Hilarity ensues as he and others gather the musicians and audience back together to repeat the concert, only this time recorded. All this trouble because the threat of losing their lives over a slight, however justifiable, to Stalin is very real.
Similarly, the scenes after Stalin is struck down by a cerebral hemorrhage reflect a culture of death seen at all levels of life. As we meet Stalin and his fellow members of the Central Committee, he is sending soldiers off to kill people on his lists. After his fall, as each member of the Central Committee comes in to see Stalin lying in a pool of his own urine, they act over-the-top as if this is the downfall of the greatest man who has ever lived, all while plotting in case he doesn’t make it.
Every member of the Central Committee is a standout. Jeffrey Tambor, as Georgy Malenkov, takes over as Stalin’s second-in-command, but it is clear he is unfit to lead. His story mostly revolves around trying to look the part of a great leader (complete with a corset and need to have an innocent blonde child to be pictured with).
In the film’s lead, Steve Buscemi proves yet again that he is far more of an actor than most give him credit. He plays Nikita Krushchev, one of two men angling to truly take Stalin’s place as head of the government, but always one step behind his very, very evil rival, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Despite being a rapist who imprisoned or murdered most of the USSR for Stalin, Beria attempts early on to reform the Party in the same ways Kruschev would have, before he had a chance to do so, to gain the love of the people. Their political battle is interesting enough in writing but made all the better by two outstanding performances from both men.
And, despite a cast of great actors with great characters, the biggest standout is Jason Isaacs. He played the war hero, and general of the army, Georgy Zhukov. While used to him playing a villain, Isaacs got to stretch himself an extra inch or two here, as he steals all his scenes. Rather than the almost stoic, “better than you” attitude of Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, Isaacs as Zhukov gets to open his jacket filled with rifles and say things like, “Here’s your dicks for the evening, ladies.” It is great.
In contrast to “Doctor Zhivago”, which plays the perils of war and revolution in the background while romance blooms in a world gone mad, “The Death of Stalin” takes the same world decades later and points to the absurdity of its horrors which have since become commonplace and routine. At times, it feels wrong to laugh. The fear of death lingers, as terrible men do terrible things in pursuit of power.
That they as leaders are absurd, that the situations are made humorous by their absurdity, makes the horror all the plainer to see without succumbing to it. Satire must cut close to the edge of reality – feeling wrong to laugh means it is close enough. Not that we need a reminder that the absurd and idiotic might rise to power despite themselves these days, but “The Death of Stalin” is valuable all the same. As a comedy and a reminder, it shows us that evil men, be their evil intentional or a byproduct of their choices, can inflict all the horrors known to man on people they are supposed to serve and leave behind a climate of death and uncertainty.