The Death of Stalin opens at the Roxy Fri., Mar. 30.
Joseph Stalin and his cronies were the worst, am I right? In The Death of Stalin, writer and director Armando Iannucci gives us the blackest of comedies about the dictator’s final days and the pitiful grappling for power that followed in the wake of his passing.
It’s 1953 in Moscow. In the opening scenes, we bear witness to Stalin’s soldiers carrying out The Great Terror’s extensive imprison and/or kill list with bored efficiency. Meanwhile, terrified Russian citizens mollify this lunatic to embarrassing, absurd lengths. For example, an orchestra has just finished their concert, but Stalin calls and wants a recording, and so what choice do the musicians and guests have but to stage a frantic second performance, lest every last one of them be purged as enemies of the state.
In this way, Stalin reminds me of the monster in the classic Twilight Zone episode, “It’s a Good Life,” where the townspeople are forced to entertain a monstrous little boy or else wind up cast out for eternity in the ominous cornfields. Or are my associations all turned around? Is the episode itself (aired in 1961, based on a 1953 short story) a response to the prevailing politics of the time? Point taken, I should probably read more.
So, as history and the title of the film suggests, the old man mercifully croaks, and now there’s a pretty big spot in the regime to fill. Chief among the applicants are Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and Nikita Khruschev (Steve Buscemi).
Hollywood must have Russian fever this season: This is the second film in a month (Red Sparrow gets better in my imagination with every passing second) to feature a primarily American and British cast in Soviet Union clothing. I like that Red Sparrow chose ridiculous Russian accents — think Boris and Natasha. It adds flavor to the genre. In The Death of Stalin, the cast has given up the ghost of using fake Russian accents. Iannucci didn’t want to distract the actors from improvising, for one. Secondly, it’s a comedy about unspeakable horrors based on even more unspeakable truths — there’s room in our hearts for a quick suspension of disbelief.
Buscemi leads the cast valiantly in what are sharp comedic performances all around, guided by Iannucci’s most savage political satire to date (See also: 2009’s In the Loop and the HBO comedy, Veep). The script features a committee of writers, led by Fabien Nury and Iannucci, based on a French Graphic novel by Thierry Robin and Nury.
Gallows humor highlights what I love most about film: The contrast between grave depravity and downright slapstick twists our emotions. In the forefront, we’re watching childish, idiotic men with egregious power quibble over drapes at the funeral, while a victim of the purge gets thrown down the stairs on his way to the gallows in the background. It’s almost too much to handle.
The movie’s billed as a straight comedy, and that’s technically correct, but the film doesn’t let us off the hook, either. The Death of Stalin culminates in some truly graphic and vicious violence. Anything else would have been dishonest to the point of being offensive. Tambor has the best frown in all of cinema, and he puts it to good use as the doltish interim figurehead. Meanwhile, Beale and Buscemi are the brains of the operation; if you know your history, you know which of them makes it out alive. “This is how people get killed,” the victor says. “When their stories don’t fit.” You see how the truth doesn’t matter? What a gross world.