The Soviet Union under the heel of Josef Stalin was a horrific place. It was so transparently brutal with everyone terrified of Stalin’s deadly gaze. One day people could disappear and be erased from recorded history as though they did not exist. George Orwell presented the horrors of Stalinist Russia via a speculative future in the classic novel 1984. Orwell provided visceral descriptions of re-education, torture and censorship of reality. How could a film about the death of one of history’s most horrid dictators be funny?
There is a certain point when things become so oblique that people instinctively laugh at the opaque absurdity. According to legend, Stanley Kubrick set about in the 1960s to make a straight adaptation of the Cold War thriller-novel Red Alert. But the more Kubrick attempted to tell the story straight the more he began to laugh at the utter absurdity of the Cold War and mutually assured destruction. It was something so insane and stupid while also painfully real. Kubrick recognizing the farcical reality of his story, re-tooled Red Alert into the classic black comedy Dr. Strangelove. Fabian Nury found himself in a similar situation when he decided to write about the fascinating period when Stalin died and the power struggle that immediately followed. It was a period of horrific bloodshed with terrible figures at the center. The people and their actions during this period were so wantonly cruel and brutal in ways that defied all belief that Nury could only laugh at this nadir of humanity. Nury teamed-up with Thierry Robin to create a painful and brilliant graphic novel that depicts this strange and dark period of human history.
Armando Ianucci, the creator and former showrunner of Veep, found out about The Death of Stalin and was interested in adapting the graphic novel into a film. Ianucci gathered a phenomenal cast of American and British actors who all are perfect for the respective roles. The respective actors do not attempt Russian accents for their roles. Martin Scorsese explained his choice of American actors and more colloquial language in The Last Temptation of Christ as necessary to avoid the distance and distraction that came with the elegant language of the Bible. Scorsese wanted viewers focused on the moment and the meaning of the words said rather than the diction. Such is the case in The Death of Stalin, as we are not focused on evaluating how much the actors resemble and/or sound like the historical figures. Steve Buscemi looks nothing like Nikita Khrushchev and tries little to resemble him beyond capturing Khrushchev’s hairline and a fake pot-belly. Rather than trying to mimic figures mostly unfamiliar to audiences, the actors inhabit the humanity and personality of these men. We follow Jeffrey Tambor’s Malenkov, Stalin’s intended successor who is hopelessly out of his depth. We also see the magnificent Michael Palin as Molotov (of Molotov cocktail fame) who is a master of solipsism. The utter stand-out is Simon Russell Beale who deftly portrays the horrendously monstrous Lavrenti Beria. Also delightful is Jason Isaac who plays the no-nonsense General Zhukov.
The opening of The Death of Stalin demonstrates the absurd levels of fear and violence in the end of Stalin’s rule. The Moscow band is playing a piece of Mozart live, juxtaposed to images of Beria’s men from the NKVD summarily imprisoning or killing men and women in the night. In this horrid backdrop the hapless broadcaster receives a call from Stalin that he wants a recording of the performance. It quickly becomes a mad scramble where the men must force the musicians to re-play the hour-long piece. The pianist refuses to play for Stalin as her family was butchered by the dictator. Meanwhile the conductor feints under the pressure of performing for the Premier, so they abduct another one. According to Nury, he and Ianucci had to downplay the more absurd reality that the first replacement conductor was too drunk to record the broadcast. They also omitted that the broadcaster had to start-up a record factory in the middle of the night to press the recording. As this insanity unfolds the conductor mixes safety reassurances with threats. If they do not give Stalin the recording, or if Stalin is upset with the recording they are all dead. Adding onto this, the pianist slips in an insulting note to Stalin in the record. In this one sequence we see how a time so monumentally oblique can be strangely funny. This is a horrendous reality where people can die over something as trivial as not sharing a rendition of Mozart.
In this horrid world we follow the politiburo, the oligarchic underlings of Stalin. The committee haplessly find their leader had a stroke and is lying in a puddle of his piss. The guards were not permitted to disturb Stalin (on pain of death as is mentioned in dialogue) and stood there for hours aware that something happened. The clueless Malenkov assumes command of the Soviet Union, all the while serial child rapist, sadistic murderer, and torturer Beria is maneuvering to make Malenkov his puppet before becoming the new head of the USSR. Sadly, nothing about Beria depicted is fictionalized, and some of his crueler actions were omitted such as how he would arrest and murder his rape victims if they refused a bouquet of flowers he gave them after doing the deed. Although Beria is obviously the lowest of the low, he angrily points out that the rest of the committee is little better. All of the politiburo ordered the death of hundreds and have varying degrees of corruption.
In this gang of scoundrels Buscemi’s Khrushchev is ostensibly the “hero” of the piece. The real Khrushchev was a complex man that had committed numerous horrible deeds. Khrushchev was also a reformer who coined the term “cult of personality” in his legendary Secret Speech decrying Stalin. This Khrushchev is ostensibly the same, as we open to Khrushchev joking about mocking prisoners of war by throwing mock grenades. He also speaks of reforms and is annoyed that Beria proposes his reforms before him aware that Beria is doing such for popularity than principle. Khrushchev is no hero, he is simply the best of horrendous people. Most of the other members of the politiburo cower in fear of Beria and are more concerned with themselves than helping anyone else.
The Russian government decided to ban The Death of Stalin last year. They determined that the film was insulting to the memory of a “national hero”. The sad and strange truth is that Stalin still is an admired figure in his home country. As much as The Death of Stalin is a farcical comedy about political struggle it never downplays the horrors committed by Stalin’s regime. In Beria’s torture chambers we hear people shout, “Long live, Stalin” before the sound of a gunshot. Arguably the genuine atrocities are made all the worst by Beria’s sadistic zingers and delight in the suffering. The committee is quick to find scapegoats rather than contemplate the gravity of their crimes. These men are so detached from the suffering of others that they joke and trivialize the death toll. The characters are quick to buck the blame on fear of Stalin rather than reflect on how they were complicit in his atrocities.