The Death of Stalin (2017)

Directed by Armando Iannucci

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The Death of Stalin is a blend of comedy and Greek tragedy.  It’s written/directed by Armando Iannucci, the man behind 2009’s In the Loop and the HBO show Veep.  This time around he finds a new location and setting for his fast-talking, improv-heavy, insult-laden political comedy, 1953 in the Soviet Union.

Many scenes from this movie feature a room full of people.  It’s rare to see two characters talking directly to each other, instead it’s a thick group of characters talking over each other.  They speak fast, in short machine gun fire bursts of dialogue, and oftentimes the narrative stalls a little while they just express frustration or incompetence.

This is all quite wonderful if you find it funny, which I did.  Taking a step back, the movie feels incredibly light on plot.  General Secretary Joseph Stalin is a dictator, he dies, and there is a power struggle in his wake.  The main cast of characters, led by Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), all form quick alliances and work to undermine the others.  Their conflict is comic, mostly since, I suppose, we know they’re all dead by now and that history remembers the ones who must’ve mattered, at least so long as it wasn’t tampered with.

Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is the man who succeeds Stalin, but he is regarded as a marionette, the puppet to be controlled by those behind the scenes.  He mostly walks around feeling aloof, unprepared and indignant.  He’s the person who will say things like, “I can’t remember who’s alive and who isn’t” and “nod as I’m speaking to you. People are looking to me for reassurance and I have no idea what’s going on.”

So Malenkov reflects the incompetency of the government, and those like Beria and Khruschev reflect the pure immorality and power-thirst of the dictatorship.  Their struggle is again played for comedy, but between the beautiful cinematography and score it starts to feel like an old Greek tragedy, something like MacBeth.

Iannucci does an impressive job balancing a film with such banter and verbal wit, often off the cuff, with the period piece setting.  The film feels both regal and modern, particularly as all the characters speak English and in their own accents.  It’s a strange blend that works for the film because it both captures the insanity of what must’ve gone on back then but effectively mocks it at the same time.  The power struggle here isn’t unique to 1953 Russia but surely also to modern day Washington.

Veep satirized the government for sometime before, as many people have remarked, Washington became a parody of itself.  With our current president, other politicians’ true motives have become much more transparent.  So many who have refused to stand up to Trump have made it clear that they’re only in it for themselves.  People fear alienating a dense demographic of voters and thus stand their ground, say nothing of substance and hope to stay in the Washington club for a little longer.  This is what Veep highlighted, and this is the same basic concern that fuels the characters here.

They all want to be relevant, to stick around, and though they might have their own plans for what to do with that power, the focus is only on attaining that power.  Near the end of the film, Kruschev, who is the only figure from the story whose name I’ve heard of, tells Beria that he will bury him in history, and because I wasn’t familiar with Beria, I assumed he did.

This is a very striking line, not just because of the gravity of the moment, right before Beria’s murder, but also because it finally felt like the movie had real stakes.  It could be seen as funny, but it was said with the utmost hatred, a violent line of dialogue that worked but stuck out because of how unexpected it was.

The Death of Stalin becomes a serious movie by the end.  It’s again a wonder to me how Iannucci blended such comedy (Stalin’s son calling someone a ‘testicle,’ for example) with such violence.  We watch as people are shot and burned, and such behavior is normalized because it was normal at the time.  Characters regard it with little consequence, and that dichotomy is striking, not just because of the comedy but because of what it symbolizes about our government today.  We may not be literally lining up death squads, but there’s enough indecency, to put it mildly, in the news today.  It’s unsettling what’s going on.

Also, it’s just wonderful that we get a movie where Steve Buscemi gets to play Nikita Khrushchev.

Up Next: Ariel (1988), Mississippi Burning (1988), Pickup on South Street (1953)

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