After putting on a freshly pressed record from a live radio performance, Joseph Stalin slumped to the ground from cerebral hemorrhage as Mozart played. The guards dared not take a peek at Stalin’s office for fear of getting executed. The General Secretary is dead. Long live the General Secretary. But who will be Stalin’s successor?
And so began the farcical power struggle between members of the Soviet Presidium.
Written and directed by satirist Armando Iannucci, scored with Soviet-era style classical music, The Death of Stalin is a political comedy set in 1953’s Soviet Russia, where people lived under the fear of mass surveillance and frequent executions. Yes, it’s a comedy. Iannucci has completed the impossible task and deftly married one of the most terrible and brutal regimes in modern history to jokes and non-stop banters! The Death of Stalin is a laugh-out-loud funny black comedy that is as dark as a labor camp’s solitary cell.
Amidst the aftermath of Stalin’s departure, players in the game teamed up to form alliances and plotted against each other. Foul-mouthed (the movie’s vocabulary took full advantage of its R rating) ministers then accused each other of factionalism while doing the exact same thing they were accusing. Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) got mad at Beria (Simon Russell Beale) at enacting policies he himself wanted to enact. Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) cried upon seeing Stalin lying on the floor but hesitated at calling a doctor to check up on the “irreplaceable leader” he loved so much. Hypocrisy is a major theme in their interactions. The talented cast that loosely resembled their real-life counterparts forgoed doing fake Russian accents altogether and delivered all of their energetic bickering in British or American accent, which was a breath of fresh air.
Do all the jokes and visual gags diminish the seriousness of the atrocities committed? Not at all. The most amazing thing The Death of Stalin has accomplished was that it walked the fine edge between absurdity and distastefulness, and never lost its balance once. It is a film that used a body careening down the stairs as part of the choreography of a walk-and-talk through NKVD’s interrogation rooms, and gunshots supplemented the sinister music. The Mozart record Stalin played at the start of the movie was, in fact, a rush job the radio staff cobbled together at the last minute, as they weren’t recording when Stalin phoned the staff and demanded a copy. The staff dragged in random people on the streets to replicate the acoustics of a full audience. The crowd complied with very little coaxing involved; they all knew what was at stake. The complete disregard of human lives had never stopped being disquieting. The horror was weaved into the comedy, and sometimes the situation was so morbid that one could only laugh.
Another part that The Death of Stalin hammered home was the facade of legitimacy. It was fun watching the highest ranking officials of the Soviet Union fumbling around their schemes, and they had distinct personalities that played well with one another. Beria was gleefully evil; Khrushchev was portrayed as a frustrated pragmatist that was always the target of a joke, and Malenkov was a coward and a master at dodging responsibilities. But they were politicians, they valued formalities, gestures, and veneer of the due process above actual actions. As Beria has pointed out in one scene to other members of the Presidium: none of their hands were clean. As likable some of the characters were, the height differences of relative moral high grounds were not significant. The focus on appearance and self-preservation maintained The Death of Stalin’s relevance to modern politics despite its time period (which was why this film was accused of “ideological warfare”, “extremism”, “causing rifts in society”, and then banned in Russia). The film was sharp and witty throughout, and a unique take on a bleak time. Although it has only been a quarter into 2018, the movie is certainly a frontrunner for one of the best films of the year.