Movie Review: The Death of Stalin
WORDS BY THOMASIN MCCUAIG
Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is an eccentric absurdist comedy that explores the power struggle among senior members of the Soviet Communist Party in the aftermath of Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953.
The satirical director is best known for his Emmy Award winning television series Veep,which similarly delves into the comic interplay between politicians as they deceive and swindle in order to ‘save face’. Iannucci has the unique ability to manipulate the audience’s emotions, successfully achieving this in The Death of Stalin through the use of black and slapstick humour, rendering historically horrific events hilarious. The film is cleverly scripted, however, the humour would not so effectively be achieved if it weren’t for the beautifully nuanced performances of a star-studded cast. There are ‘Monty Pythonesque’ elements to a fair amount of the humour, particularly evoked in the funeral scene where each of the politicians play Chinese whispers around the coffin in a fight for status.
The film stars Steve Buscemi as the minister of Agriculture, Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev proves to be the most appealing (or less vindictive) character amongst his fellow cronies, such as Lavrenti Beria played by Simon Russel Beale. Buscemi brings a persuasive realism to his character and is oddly likeable as we witness him telling jokes to his wife and hurriedly throwing a jacket and pants over his pyjamas when meeting to assess Stalin’s body. The three standout characters, however, are Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Field Marshal Zhukov hilariously portrayed by Jason Isaacs and Joseph Stalin’s highly-strung son Vasily (Rupert Friend). Malenkov, who temporarily assumes leadership over both the party and Council of Ministers, is terribly pale at the prospect, growing concerned more with his physical appearance than the collusions of his peers. This absurd obsession is depicted throughout the film as Tambor fusses over himself in a photo shoot and asks which portrait looks better when they are virtually the same.
Jason Isaacs portrayal of Field Marshal Zhukov is as hilarious as it is frighteningly unpredictable. This is seen in the trailer when Isaacs presents a hard, serious face, whilst threatening to report his conversation with Khrushchev, then suddenly breaks into laughter with the line, “Look at your fookin’ face.” Zhukov is also the only man who shows not a quiver of cowardice and – in regards to Beria – states, “I fooked Germany. I think I can take a fresh lump in a fookin’ waistcoat.” Vasily Stalin, played by Rupert Friend, steals the show in every scene that he is in. Vasily is seen to take after his father’s dictatorial qualities and this becomes clear when he is first introduced on screen on an ice-hockey rink, yelling to the players “play better, you clattering fannies!” Vasily Stalin’s highly aggressive and violent nature adds another comic element to the film as it seems that he has more alcohol in his system than he has brains.
In many ways, The Death of Stalin is a farce – however, the film has a mordant quality. Iannucci positions the audience to laugh at the small-mindedness of the men who perform cruelty rather than the cruelty itself. An interesting element of the film is the paradoxical sense of realism within the absurdity. Iannucci creates his own reality as the actors dialects remain the same, creating a Brechtian alienation by making the familiar seem strange: Steve Buscemi sticks to his Brooklyn accent whilst Jason Isaac depicts the Russian military leader as a Yorkshire man. Although this directorial choice may seem unnatural, it works, and the audience adapts almost immediately. The decision to incorporate a variety of accents may also suggest the boundless nature of totalitarianism. An uninformed audience will definitely enjoy the film and it is not essential to have contextual knowledge – however, I cannot help feeling that a more comprehensive knowledge of Russian politics in the period in which it is set will lead to a greater appreciation of the film.
The Death of Stalin is a must-see, unforgettable film that is a stand out in the genre of black comedy. It presents a sub-genre of this kind that is rarely seen in film: a satire that follows real-life historical events. The film parodies these true events in detail, and although the film is not completely historically accurate, it succeeds in reflecting the terrifyingly real aspects of society and the brutal hunger for power in political systems. Despite its parodic elements, the film has a powerful edge. It’s casual brutality and heightened familiarity serves two purposes: to make us laugh and to make us think.
Image credit: Main Journey Quad Productions