There’s lots of fodder for political satirists these days and Armando Iannucci, a master of the genre, has taken on US politics in HBO’s long-running Veep and British politics in The Thick of It and In the Loop. In The Death of Stalin he takes direct aim at Russia, not present day, but in 1953, during the last days of Josef Stalin’s 29-year tyrannical reign. Based loosely on facts, as all politics tend to be, Iannucci’s dark comedy focuses on Stalin’s demise, and the chaos that ensues as his various underlings engage in a furious struggle to assume power.
All three main heirs-apparent to his “throne” are cunning, callous and power hungry. First is Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin’s loyal deputy, who is weak and indecisive. Second is Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale, an accomplished British stage actor), the ruthless head of the Soviet secret police and keeper of the death lists. Third is Moscow Party Head Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), who is savvy and diabolical but keeps his cards close. There are four also-rans including Molotov, a lackey who continues to try to appease Stalin even after he’s dead — a standout performance by Michael Palin of Monty Python fame. The British and American actors play Russians but with no attempt to speak with a Russian accent, helping us to see it as a not-exact re-telling of the story.
Stalin’s protracted death keeps the “is he or isn’t he?” storyline going for a time.
Then once he succumbs, the power play ensues. The plotting and backstabbing become more elaborate as funeral arrangements are made and Stalin’s children have to be dealt with.
Family, friends and all the multitudes of terrified and worshiping masses, uncertain of what’s ahead, come together to pay their “respects.” And all the while, the henchmen jockey for position, and the machinations around the funeral become more and more desperate. This is dark real-life political drama, glued together by hilarious dialogue and oddball characters.
Considering it’s based on appalling events, It’s quite remarkable that Iannucci manages to bring laughs to a bleak time in history. Clever comedic moments and buffoonery are starkly contrasted with the horrific realism of kidnappings, executions and official sociopathic behaviours, exposing the full terror of Soviet life in that era. It never asks us to laugh at cruelty; it does make us laugh at the absurd pettiness and small-mindedness of the men perpetuating the cruelty.
Although it’s dark, there is just the right amount of humour to take the edge off what happened during the regime and yet educate us to the horrible and easily repeatable reality. Since the movie was written three years ago, they couldn’t have intended the resonances with today’s situation with Russia and the West. Predictably, Putin has banned the movie from being shown in Russia. On Jan. 26, an arthouse cinema in Moscow defied the ban and screened The Death of Stalin. Police officers attended and the theatre later announced it was cancelling all further screenings for reasons beyond its control.
Warning: there is plenty of abrasively profane dialogue.
The Death of Stalin plays at 5 p.m. Saturday, April 7 at the Salmar Classic.