THE DEATH OF STALIN (2018), the most recent film by writer/director Armando Iannucci, is one of the darkest and painfully ugly black comedies I’ve seen in a long time.
And yet, like the audience I saw it with, I laughed out loud. Frequently.
In terms of its satirical tone, THE DEATH OF STALIN is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s classic DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964). Whereas STRANGELOVE made people laugh with a story about nuclear annihilation, THE DEATH OF STALIN takes the ruthlessness of Russian politics in the days following Stalin’s death and presents a story that somehow gets its audience to howl with laughter.
The story opens in Moscow in 1953, and we see a nation living in mortal fear of its leader, Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin). In fact, the people are so frightened, that when Stalin requests a recording of a concert held earlier that evening, and the petrified producers realize the concert was not recorded, they call everyone back into hall to play the concert again and this time record it. Since most of the patrons had left, they round up people off the street to fill in the empty seats. To calm the people, the producer says, “Everything’s fine. No one is going to be killed.” But the conductor panics, slips, falls, and dies.
They send for another conductor, whisking him out of his apartment in the middle of the night, amidst the evening raids by Soviet troops to extract citizens and execute them. The conductor expects to be shot but instead is gleefully brought to the auditorium where he conducts the orchestra in his pajamas.
Such is life in Stalin’s Soviet Union.
When Stalin dies, his inner circle of ministers scramble to fill the power void, as folks like Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) jockey for position to become the next in power, which often means making sure they’re not next in line to be shot.
What they do, who they team up with, and how they try to outsmart one another makes up the remainder of the film, and of course, students of history know who ultimately prevailed in this power struggle.
THE DEATH OF STALIN is a sharply written and very well-acted dark comedy that had me laughing in spite of the lurid tale it tells.
One of the reasons it resonates so well is due in large part to current events. Russia is in the news an awful lot lately, mostly because of the antics of its leader Vladimir Putin. THE DEATH OF STALIN provides an open look into the ruthlessness and brutal history of Russia. It also shows what life is like in a country where all the power is held by one man. It’s not a pretty picture. Not in the least.
It also resonates here in the United States where the present administration is making great strides to operate outside the traditional political landscape, to the point where it’s almost celebrating the realm of dictators, leaders like Putin. THE DEATH OF STALIN shows why such leaders are simply not to be celebrated.
The biggest reason the movie works, however, is that the biting humor is on target throughout. The aforementioned concert sequence is hilarious, while later elements, the moving of Stalin’s body, for instance, are just as uproarious. The film highlights the ridiculousness of certain situations without ever become ridiculous. People don’t act silly here. They act dead serious, knowing that they could be shot at any moment. Position and power do not matter. No one is safe. In fact, so many people are shot in this movie, so casually, it almost becomes a running gag.
Steve Buscemi is perfect as Nikita Khrushchev. His silly demeanor had disarmed his associates, Stalin included, but his meticulous note taking and serious thoughts on his country put him in prime position to become the next Soviet leader. Buscemi is hilarious in the role, which is seeped in seriousness,.
Simon Russell Beale delivers the best performance in the movie, as the icy cold Lavrenti Beria, the man who held secrets on nearly everyone. Beria was a notorious sexual predator, and his scenes here with young girls make him a rather despicable character.
Jeffrey Tambor makes for a satisfying Georgy Malenkov, the clueless leader who had no idea what he was doing. Michael Palin gives a restrained and understated performance as Molotov, who seems to be driven by fear throughout. And Jason Isaacs, recently of the TV series STAR TREK: DISCOVERY (2017-18) as Captain Lorca, and who also played the mysterious doctor in A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016) is memorable as Field Marshall Zhukov.
Director Iannucci made the curious decision to have all the actors speak English without Russian accents. At first, I found this off-putting, as it seemed strange to be telling this deeply Russian tale with actors with British accents, but eventually this decision grew on me. The British accents seemed to fit in more closely with the humor and served as a reminder that this tale though based on true events was being told with a comedic eye towards the absurd.
Iannucci wrote the screenplay with David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows, based on the comic book “The Death of Stalin” by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. As I said, the storytelling was reminiscent of DR. STRANGELOVE. At times, it also reminded me somewhat of Ernst Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) although its story is much darker than Lubitsch’s World War II tale.
I enjoyed THE DEATH OF STALIN, and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed at material as dark and disturbing as this before, which is a testament to the writing, acting, and directing in this one.
It’s not for everyone’s tastes, and it’s certainly not a straightforward comedy, but THE DEATH OF STALIN has a lot to say about the dangers of absolute power and the ridiculousness of those who believe that such power is a good thing. And it says it all with a sense of humor that will make you squirm in your seat and laugh at the same time, which is not an easy thing to do.
Looking at the U.S. right now, and wishing I were laughing…