The Death of Stalin – is it anti-commie propaganda? A warning against the effects of an embittered boys’ club? Or Armando Iannucci’s newest period comedy? In this writer’s modest opinion, it’s all of the above. Iannucci (The Thick of It, Veep) is back with a tale of elite Russian politicians scheming, plotting, and conspiring their way to the top in the aftermath of Comrade Stalin’s demise. That isn’t a spoiler, it’s in the title.
Some knowledge of context is recommended to be able to situate yourself amongst the wreck of Stalin’s government. 1950’s Moscow was bleak and dangerous with many picked off the streets and threatened with internment if they couldn’t produce the names of those who opposed Stalin’s leadership. It was a breeding ground for mistrust, suspicion, and now, black comedy. Based on the comic of the same name La Mort de Staline, Iannucci gives riotous insight into the crumbling collective leadership headed up, in the very loosest terms, by Jeffrey Tambor’s dour and fumbling Georgy Malenkov, an idiot in a suit whose self-obsession provides an easily manipulated vessel for Steve Buschemi’s Krushchev to flatter and flounder into control, while the repellent Simon Russel Beale’s Beria tries to do the same.
The constant murder of civilians and raping of young Russian girls at the hands of the completely cretinous Beria provides the ‘black’ in ‘black comedy’. The sharp offsetting of this against the sometimes Monty Python-esque humour (happily provided by a puppy and Michael Palin as Molotov) of the more trivial scenes gives the traumatic a sharp sting of severity, cutting laughter short and heightening the tension over who will victor as Stalin’s successor. This pressure is ramped up to the point of hysteria in the violent denouement where it becomes clear that evil wears more than one mask in this game of sycophancy.
Co-writers Iannucci and David Schneider (Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge) have produced a masterful script jumping from dry humour and acerbic observations to several hilarious pieces of physical comedy, one in which Krushchev performs what can only be described as a shuffle dance, to moments of great gravitas with ease. The words are brought to life by a bevy of accents that only act to heighten the absurdity of the insults traded with extreme enthusiasm for the duration of the film – Jason Isaac’s Georgy Zhukov delivers his bravado with a swaggering, thick Yorkshire accent that is so improbable in 1953 Russia that it works perfectly amongst the other American and RP accents.
Zac Nicholson provides surprisingly beautiful and brutal cinematography, using a colour scheme borrowed directly from the pages of the graphic novel. It captures the snow and pale faces of post-Stalin Russia in stark contrast to the abundance of red used in the communist party dressings and blood of those unfortunate enough to spill it. Such a palette provides an element of stasis in the wildly neurotic political upheaval and gives the film an aesthetically pleasing element not frequently associated with comedies. The combination of this with the films classically-based soundtrack scored by Christopher Willis cements The Death of Stalin as a film built on contrasts and contradictions as the prolific obscenities fly.
If the stellar cast and script isn’t enough to pique your interest, maybe the reaction of the Russian Ministry of Culture considering a ban on the film is. A high ranking official claimed that The Death of Stalin was a western plot to destabilise Russia by causing rifts in society, and refused to show the satire in Russia, stating that it has the capability to create hatred and unrest if taken in. Providing as good a reason to watch the film as any.
– Emily Earp
FEATURED PHOTOGRAPH SOURCE: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4686844/mediaviewer/rm1705859840