Did you hear the joke about the guy with the mustache that killed millions? It’s not easy to find humour in the horrible, but if the definition of comedy truly is tragedy plus time then the likes of The Producers can illustrate that when barbarity is made to look ridiculous it’s a powerful political statement. With The Death of Stalin we have another work that dares to be outrageously provocative, bleakly comic and acerbically pointed about the politics of 1950’s Soviet Russia.
Directed to tonal perfection by Armand Iannucci, the Brit behind The Thick of It, Veep and In the Loop, Stalin feels like a perfect distillation of his previous works, as the satire is made even more pointed when the subjects are as heightened and historically significant as those portrayed here. He has assembled an immensely talented ensemble, led by Steve Buscemi cast physiognomically against type as “Nicky” Khruschev. From Jeffrey Tambor’s hapless Malenkov, Adriam Mcloughlin’s Stalin, Michael Palin’s quivering Molotov or Paddy Considine’s Andreyev there’s some serious scene chewing at work.
Kudos to Jason Isaacs who plays the war hero Zhukov with the brashness of Brian Blessed’s trumpeting in Blackadder. Bond femme Olga Kurylenko adds some authentic Russian flair, and a hyper neurotic take by Andrea Riseborough, along with Rupert Friend as her incompetent sibling, play Stalin's children with appropriate vapidity. Then there’s Simon Russell Beale, a famed stage actor with a smattering of on screen credits, here providing a commanding performance both dramatic and comedic as the conniving Lavrentiy Beria.
The film brilliantly portrays the banality of evil, with the bureaucratic nonsense at the heart of the system serving to profoundly dehumanize what transpires. Iannucci wisely lets much of the violence play slightly off screen until late in the work, allowing for a gradual buildup to eventual horrors.
While much of the film is the work of imagination, some of the more outwardly silly moments, such as leaving a stroked-out leader on the floor while waiting to find a doctor who hadn’t been summarily executed by the same individual, are actually completely true. The film never dismisses the general brutality of what’s going on, but it does show its matter-of-fact nature in ways that are inherently farcical at the same time that they’re horrifying. It’s this very blend that sets the film apart, navigating an extremely fine line that Iannucci and his editors manage to stay upon.
There are many that will draw direct parallels to a bumbling, fickle leader, his conniving yet sycophantic collaborators and his narcissistic and dangerously oblivious children to other, more contemporary regimes. Yet despite being a period piece tied to a very specific set of events, the film speaks to a larger, more universal look at the forces of power, corruption, palace intrigue and the actions of those under constant threat of near arbitrary punishment.
Thanks to a wonderful cast and whip-smart script, the film effectively pierces the somber events surrounding the fall of the tyrant who named himself the Man of Steel. While some of the film could use a bit more tightening, with a few of the story threads deserving of a bit more refinement, there’s still a giddy sense of both provocation and profound attention to detail that sets the work apart. As a film it may not be perfect, but Iannucci’s work is to be highly praised for its ability to tell such a story in such a way that it will appeal to general audiences and tickle even the most jaded of filmgoers. As lurid as dark comedies go, The Death of Stalin is one of the year’s most outrageously fun and provocative films.