“Death of Stalin,” directed by Armando Ianucci, is a bombastically hilarious fictional re-telling of how the Soviet Union’s council of high-up political leaders dealt with the void left by Joseph Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) death. It is an Anglo-American production, with main actors being for the most part either British or American, an exception being Olga Kurylenko, who plays Maria, a rightfully vengeful pianist whose loved ones were killed due to Stalin’s policies.
At the beginning of the movie, Stalin is still alive, and we get a peak at how powerful he is. The sound director at a concert hall makes the orchestra play their entire performance again so that he can record it and put it on vinyl, at the request of Stalin himself, because he knows it would be bad news to not deliver what Stalin asks for. Military officers carry out arrests and executions of dissidents put on ‘the list.’ And Stalin and his close associates who all hold extremely high positions in the regime, including Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), spend time laughing and watching cowboy movies, which Stalin fancies. In these scenes, there is something extremely funny seeing a monster like Stalin speak English with a British accent.
Regardless of any sort of connection to actual history, I can’t stress enough how funny this movie is. It’s an absolute riot. Krushchev, after hanging with his comrades, recounts all of the jokes and bits he tried out with his friends to his wife, who writes them down. He notes which jokes didn’t get any laughs, and makes a mental note not to tell it again. Malenkov spends almost half of the movie trying to find the right little girl to be in an official, symbolic portrait with him. Jokes about who may or not be put on ‘the list’ abound. The list goes on.
The humor, for the most part, is intensified by the tension between the sheer, destructive power possessed by those calling the shots and the absolute absurdity of situations the wielding of their power causes. For example, the symphony needed a new composer because the one who was at the hall passed out, so they knock on another composer’s apartment door late at night. The composer thinks he is about to be arrested (many are being arrested at this time, in the same building too), but is instead asked to compose the performance which Stalin wants recorded, and he does so in his pajamas. Further, Beria and company scramble to find a doctor to work on the ill Stalin, but they realize that they sent all the doctors in Moscow to gulags, so they have to rely on rounding up retired doctors and medical students to potentially save their dear leader’s life.
There are also two levels of political commentary happening on the surface level of the movie, and neither are heavy-handed at all. On the one hand, it’s remarkable to see how detached the Soviet leaders are from the ground, where the effects of their decision cause great suffering for the masses. The all-boys crew of Soviet Leaders is a group of deplorables if there ever was one, and it doesn’t take much of a cognitive leap to piece that critique together in terms of relating the movie to our times, especially when one thinks about forced detainment and violence against one’s own people. Many such regimes come to mind, both close to home and far away. Without giving too much away, it’s fitting that one of the main characters is one such affected person “on the ground,” who manages to sneak their way into the extravagance of elitist life in order to carry out some sort of resistance. The other commentary, which might be a stretch, is that the movie itself is an act of semi-aggression against modern-day Russia: Russia is known for upsetting the dynamics of the Western world over the last couple years, namely during the election, and this movie could be viewed as a way of trolling Russia in turn, bringing up their dark past and portraying some extremely important figures in their history as being bumbling, petty and selfish idiots. The Russian Ministry of Culture did ban the film, after all, whether the movie was intended as a slight or not.
Regardless, carried by an extremely strong performance from Steve Buschemi, “Death of Stalin” hits the mark on a comedic and intellectual level, producing one of the smartest and funniest films I’ve seen in a long time. It exists in the same vein as Tarantino’s “Inglorious Bastards,” but differs in that there’s hardly any satisfying revenge, there are no heroes, and nobody learns anything.
Photo Courtesy Nicola Dove/IFC Films