By Preston Wilder
The only relief in The Death of Stalin – a gut-punch, pitch-black political comedy by Armando Iannucci – is that you know the ending, or at least you should. (Look it up.) These are real, famous people, the Central Committee of the Soviet Union at the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 – though you have to wonder, did Nikita Khruschev (Steve Buscemi)’s colleagues really put a ripe tomato in his pocket as a practical joke? Did the weak, equivocating Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) really say “No problem”, then change it – when he saw his position was unpopular – to “No! Problem!”? Did the feared Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) really give a minion specific instructions (“Shoot her first, but make sure he sees it”) when disposing of enemies of the state? Well, maybe that last part.
Iannucci is known as a satirist – he also made In the Loop, plus the TV series Veep and The Thick of It – but his style is closer to political burlesque, with a slapstick sensibility. His films focus less on politicians hypocritically joining forces to perpetuate the elite and stick it to the people (which would indeed be satire) than on politicians swearing and yelling at each other, frenziedly trying to undermine their rivals like the contestants on some reality-TV show. Politics and reality TV have converged in recent years (most obviously with the election of Donald Trump) so the style is certainly timely, but it’s also the style of an age that doesn’t take politicians seriously. Iannucci devalues politics, reducing it to the level of base human instincts – the playground level of the strong preying on the weak – which is why his films are upsetting rather than disturbing. They’re like watching lions feeding on an antelope in some BBC nature series.
The Death of Stalin is by far his most disturbing work, because it has a basis in truth. The final days of Stalin’s regime weren’t exactly like this, of course, but they were somewhat like this: the mood of paranoia, the NKVD (secret service) dungeons, the ubiquitous cult of personality. Prisoners yell “Long live Stalin!” seconds before being shot; Molotov (Michael Palin), learning that ‘Uncle Joe’ placed him on a list of enemies – in fact, only Stalin’s sudden death saved him from being arrested and executed – blames himself rather than his old comrade (“I must’ve wronged him”). The film is hilarious farce, but it gets at something truly horrifying: a whole country in the grip of Stockholm syndrome, clinging desperately to its avuncular oppressor.
Stalin himself, briefly glimpsed, comes off like a roguish East End villain, with a taste for macho banter and American Westerns (“Tahm for a cowboy movie, ’oo’s in my posse?”). His associates are gangsters in general, brutalised by war, with the immaturity of naughty boys; they behave like a neighbourhood gang, and even seem to live next door to each other. Beria is profane Malcolm Tucker from In the Loop, a loose cannon whose rage can be unleashed against ostensible friends as well as common enemies. Khruschev is the most sympathetic – Buscemi, with his put-upon air, is good casting – still ruthless but not as sneaky as the others, and a survivor (which is probably the best thing one can be in Iannucci’s universe). Malenkov is a useless buffoon – though he does get the film’s most pithy line, after causing embarrassment by bringing up some disgraced, long-since-executed comrade: “I’m exhausted. I can’t remember who’s alive and who isn’t!”.
This is a nightmarish comedy, its terror expressed through the bureaucratic apparatus of lists and committees. Ordinary people walk on eggshells, on the lookout for the tiny misstep which may prove fatal – but their leaders, too, are constantly vigilant. Taking a vote in committee is a tricky matter: votes should be unanimous (you don’t want to be the one who’s on record as having dissented) – so everyone kind of half-raises his hand, waiting to see how the others are voting and acting accordingly. It’s a neat bit of slapstick, though slapstick can be verbal as well: the scene where our heroes debate who exactly was included in “all of you” (as in ‘I have incriminating documents on all of you’) is vaudeville sparring at its funniest.
The Death of Stalin opens with sombre classical piano – which is partly misdirection, but not really. The feeding frenzy makes for knockabout fun: the pretenders to Stalin’s vacant throne rush to be the first to console his daughter, or to kneel beside his corpse as it lies on the bedroom floor (complicated by the fact that it’s lying in a puddle of urine). Yet the film is sombre, looking totalitarianism in the eye, and would surely have provoked a storm of controversy if it weren’t a comedy. Even with the farcical elements, Wikipedia notes that it’s been banned in Russia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. I assume Iannucci must be pleased.
DIRECTED BY Armando Iannucci
STARRING Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor
UK/France 2017 106 mins