Despite the title, The Death of Stalin is a comedy. And a very funny one at that. Directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci (of In the Loop and Veep fame), the film incorporates farce, wordplay, sight gags, and satire into one hilarious Molotov cocktail.
Set in 1953 Moscow, Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is a foul-mouthed tyrant who has been terrorizing the Soviet people for 20 years. When he wants a recording of a live concert that has just been performed, the hall manager, Andreyev (Paddy Considine) goes out of his way to restage the event to satisfy Stalin for fear of a grim alternative. The recording gives Maria Veniaminovna Yudina, a pianist (Olga Kurylenko), the opportunity to send Stalin a spiteful note, which causes him to have a cerebral hemorrhage. Suddenly, the members of Stalin’s inner circle, which include Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) are scrambling to deal with the aftermath of his death.
One of the film’s comic highlights has six men moving Stalin’s body, a wonderful metaphor for the inability of a committee of government officials to work together and for the power struggle that ensues. Khrushchev is forced to plan the funeral, and Malenkov assumes power (never mind that he’s a bumbling idiot). Beria, meanwhile, is scheming and manipulating behind the scenes, but perhaps not for long.
Iannucci adheres closely to the real-life characters and their possible real-life behavior so the ridiculous actions come off as comic gold. One throwaway joke has Stalin’s son Vasily (Rupert Friend) trying to downplay the (real-life) airplane crash that killed nearly a dozen members of the Moscow ice hockey team. This episode is amusing, because of the subtext; Vasily’s fear of his father finding out speaks volumes about their relationship (and may explain his penchant for vodka). Such details inform the film’s humor.
Significantly, The Death of Stalin also portrays the violence of Stalin’s purges. There is a small, but important scene in which a son gives up his father, only to later be unexpectedly reunited with him.
These few darker moments however, only magnify the film’s farce. When Beria discovers Malenkov is wearing a girdle—he claims to have a bad back—Malenkov asks for his discretion. Of course, the scheming Beria finds ways of working the word “girdle” into as many conversations as possible. Such is the film’s mischievous sense of humor.
Iannucci also puts the fun in funeral as Stalin’s ceremony is one giant comic set piece with silliness involving Khrushchev trying to gain the upper hand over Beria at all costs. When Field Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) enters, all fired up, all hell breaks loose in ways best left for viewers to discover.
The ensemble cast is uniformly terrific, with Buscemi a standout as Khrushchev. The character actor is wonderfully expressive as he becomes increasingly dismayed at other peoples’ idiocy, but he also makes a simple bit of business involving him wearing a suit over his pajamas hilarious. Jeffrey Tambor imbues Malenkov with an insecurity and a vanity and Simon Russell Beale deserves credit for making Beria such an arch comic villain.
The Death of Stalin doesn’t require viewers to know all the details of the Soviet government to enjoy it, but the film is all the more uproarious for those that get the jokes.
The Death of Stalin opens today at the Ritz East and the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.