Movie Review: The Death of Stalin
Dark satire set in the Soviet Union in 1953 finds bleak humour in the betrayals, slaughters and political manoeuvering of a host of communist leaders
The Death of Stalin
Starring: Adrian McLoughlin, Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Banks, Jeffrey Tambor
Directed by: Armando Iannucci
Running time: 106 minutes
By Jay Stone
When Joseph Stalin — probably the most prolific mass murderer in history — dropped dead in 1953 of a cerebral hemorrhage, it left a vacuum at the top of the Soviet government. A lot more people were murdered before it was filled.
Laughing yet? Because this is the premise of The Death of Stalin, a comedy that finds its humour — black humour, mind you, but no less hilarious for that — in the mad reign of killing and in the skittish maneuvering of various deputies, assistants, hopefuls and sadistic rapists whom Uncle Joe left behind. It’s funny in the way this is funny: Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), one of the plotters for leadership, has to climb several flights of stairs to reach the apartment of Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), a co-member of the country’s ruling committee. Khrushchev arrives pale and out of breath.
“You look like you’re about to be bulldozed into a lime pit,” Molotov remarks, reaching for an appropriate simile in this time of terror. It’s said lightly: the leaders in The Death of Stalin are mostly good old boys whose war stories just happen to take place in the Gulag or in the fearsome prisons of the secret police. They sit around kibitzing and laughing, with one eye on Stalin to ensure that they haven’t crossed some line that will have them and their families shot at dawn.
The film — based on a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin — begins with a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, during which the phone rings in the control room of the concert hall and the sound technician (Paddy Considine) is informed that Comrade Stalin would like a recording of the concert delivered immediately. Since it has not been recorded, this is a problem and Considine delivers the first of several performances of quaking panic that form a motif among the film’s minor characters. The answer, of course, is to play the entire concerto over again, turn on the tape recorder and watch the clock nervously.
We see why very soon. Stalin — played by British actor Adrian McLoughlin with a coarse Cockney accent that mirrors the Georgian roots of the subject — is a casual killer, handing out daily lists of people to be rounded up and slaughtered. These orders are interpreted by the brutal head of the secret police, Lavrentiy Baria (Simon Russell Beale, a beefy, working-class horror) for maximum punishment. “Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it,” he tells an agent.
Stalin’s untimely collapse means the central committee must gather to decide, first of all, where to find a doctor, all of the good ones having been murdered during a previous cleansing. The question of whether to inflict a bad doctor on the dictator practically answers itself. If Stalin recovers, it was a good doctor. If he dies, the doctor can be shot. So the Soviet system refreshed itself.
This marks the beginning of a madcap roundelay of blame and shifting loyalties among the central characters, who also include such ripe villains as army leader Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), whose chest is heavy with medals, and Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) the ineffectual chosen successor. Tambor’s dithering performance is a weak-kneed addition to what is otherwise a marvelous confederacy of self-interest, cowardice and double-dealing. The interplay between Baria and Khrushchev is especially rich.
The fact that the actors all speak in their native accents adds to the movie’s tone of surreal bafflement; the babble matches the perceived tenor of the times, when people were arrested for no reason and sometimes released on the same basis. Palin, the old Monty Python hand, must have felt right at home in the twisted illogic.
Director Armando Iannucci (Veep) decorates the story with offhand bits of business — soldiers being shot in the head for being on the wrong side just after they shot someone else in the head for being on the other side just a few seconds earlier — that reflect the insane unpredictability of the regime.
Indeed, one could view the story of a tipsy government led by an illogical leader as a caustic commentary on our times. None of that is explicitly stated in The Death of Stalin but there is an uneasy feeling of familiarity. Not that history is repeating itself or anything, but an awful lot of so-called leaders are looking over their shoulders lately, as if they’re about to be bulldozed into a lime pit.
THE EX-PRESS, March 20, 2018
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