This post contains spoilers from The Death of Stalin (2017).
The essence of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is best captured in one early scene. During a late evening dinner engagement, Steve Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale start laughing and chest bumping each other. The film speed creeps into slow motion and subtitles reveal exactly what you are watching. You see that one man is Joseph Stalin’s enforcer, Lavrently Beria. The other is the future leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev. The pair are portraying powerful, brutal, and terrifying men. They are acting like children. They look like frolicking idiots.
Anyone familiar with Iannucci’s work should not be surprised by this scene. The dysfunction of bureaucracy and trappings of power are the primary themes of his previous creations Veep, The Thick Of It, and In The Loop. Iannucci crafted The Death of Stalin in a similar mold.
The Death of Stalin follows the immediate chaos surrounding the final repose of one of the most brutal dictators in history. Through Iannucci’s chaos, the morbidity of the situation becomes calamity as the men scramble to bury Stalin and appoint a successor.
Like Iannucci’s other works, The Death of Stalin is hysterical. It is also smart beyond the comedy. Through satire, the British writer has discovered effective ways of mocking the flaws of even the most powerful humans.
The Death of Stalin
The cast of The Death of Stalin is outstanding. In addition to Buscemi and Beale, Michael Palin, and Jeffrey Tambor portray members of the Politburo. Jason Isaacs is brilliant as Russian General Georgy Zhukov. Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough play Stalin’s children.
Riseborough’s arrival as Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Stalina, brings out some of the most ridiculous behavior from his inner circle. Svetlana arrives at her father’s house shortly after his stroke. Meanwhile, members of the Politburo are already plotting his succession. The men run through woods surrounding the house so that they may be the first to offer her comfort. Even as they run Khrushchev and Vyacheslav Molotov (played by Palin) continue to plot. The irony: Svetlana holds no actual power. She will not influence the success. They only want to appear as if they hold the best interests of Stalin’s daughter at heart. Nothing will get in the way of their disingenuous sympathy.
Another farcical moment comes as the Politburo conduct their first formal meeting after the death of Stalin. Despite their personal misgivings, all decisions have to appear unanimous so that they can maintain a display of public unity. Watching the men glance around the room to see how everyone else is voting is a scene straight out of a middle school group project. It is hysterical to watch Tambor drag out the word “u-nan-i-mously” as the men reluctantly agree to whatever measures are being considered. It is also a typical example of how Iannucci’s style of satire exemplifies the weakness of people in powerful positions.
To say that gallows humor is in place throughout The Death of Stalin would be an understatement. The threat of state-ordered death is present from beginning to end. The vast majority of the film’s comedy comes with the understanding that even the most innocent misstep could trigger an execution.
The overhanging threat of death is made early in the film. Stalin’s number two, Georgy Malenkov (played by Tambor), confesses that he can’t even keep track of who has been executed.
In an absurd scene involving a Mozart performance that is being broadcast on Radio Moscow, Stalin calls the radio producer and requests a recording of the performance. Because the performance had not been recorded, the nervous producers have to re-record another live performance. In order to do so, they rouse a conductor from his sleep and bring in new audience members off the street.
The scene would normally be absurd. It is the kind of thing that typically makes an audience roll its eyes, because it is ridiculous to go to such lengths so that one man can have a record. Except the scene depicted in the movie really happened in 1944.
Like many aspects of The Death of Stalin, the re-recording of Mozart is taken from actual moments of history. Most of the timeline film is not historically accurate, although it portrays the bleakness of the situation well. Some of the brutality of Beria’s NKVD security forces is depicted. Even the powerful Politburo is afraid of Stalin’s whims. There is never a moment where terror and uncertainty leave the screen.
Armando Iannucci’s Style
It would be trite to say that The Death of Stalin is especially meaningful given our contemporary political climate. It will always be healthy to step back and find a way to laugh at the flaws of the figures who have evolved into deified roles. Iannucci has repeatedly reminded audiences of this through his television and film work.
In the television show The Thick Of It, Iannucci depicted a fictional department in the British government. The Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship revealed the inherent dysfunctional of bureaucracy. The Thick Of It utilized a myriad of government scenarios that included elections, immigration policies, and political cover ups. The short-season BBC series aired intermittently between 2005 and 2012.
The show’s spin-off film, In The Loop (2008), took some of these same characters and gave them a more serious premise. After spending four seasons with the group of inept officials, these same bureaucrats become tasked with coordinating an Anglo-American military intervention in the Middle East.
HBO’s Veep initially portrayed the second fiddle trappings of American Vice President Selina Meyer, a hapless politician who is just a heartbeat away from becoming the president… until she becomes the president and her ineffectiveness becomes more burdensome on the government. Veep’s seventh and final season is slated to be broadcast in 2019.
The Death Of Stalin fits squarely in with Iannucci’s other political satires. He guided another strong cast and crafted a good movie where the comedy and situations are worthy of dissection.
While the swearing is less inventive in The Death of Stalin than Iannucci’s previous works, the film repeats much of his prior style. The most obvious theme in his writing is that no one is safe from being humanized in order to ground those in positions of extreme power. The ridiculousness of bureaucracy, even in a Stalinist setting, is also exposed. It is amazing to watch as Iannucci employs his black comedy in a third political setting. Just like he had at No. 10 Downing Street and the White House, Iannucci has continued to find the humor in even the darkest of situations.
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