The Death of Stalin demystifies dictatorship [review]

Commentary, Film and Television, Reviews

Providing an absurdist look behind the Iron Curtain, blackly comedic The Death of Stalin is one of the best political satires ever made.

Written and directed by Armando Iannucci, The Death of Stalin chronicles the chain of events following the sudden death of the Soviet tyrant. The film plays these true events as madcap farce, following Stalin’s underlings as they each fight to install themselves as successor.

The tone of Death of Stalin will be familiar to fans of Iannucci’s Veep and In the Loop, which aimed their contempt at contemporary British and American legislators. These earlier comedies sought to expose how politics can be overly focused on the trivial: the staff of Veep’s ambitious Vice President could spend the better part of a day agonizing over what flavour of frozen yogurt their boss should sample for a photo-op; in In the Loop, a British Parliamentarian neck-deep in discussions about whether to enter the Iraq War was continually interrupted by an irate constituent demanding repairs to a wall.

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The Death of Stalin’s politicians are similarly cynical, their desperate power-grabs punctuated by juvenile bickering, bureaucratic red tape, and arguments over funeral furnishings. The main difference is that in this film, metaphorical back-stabbing is replaced by outright murder.

(If nothing else, this is a film that reminds those of us who live in liberal democracies just how lucky we are).

The cast consists mainly of British and American actors, including Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria, Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov, and Monty Python’s Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov.

Somewhat controversially, Iannucci allows its stars to speak in their own accents, rather than affected Russian ones. This approach adds an immediacy to the events, and eliminates the temptation to otherize the Russian protagonists; as Slate’s Marissa Martinelli argues, “the familiarity of the accents makes the action feel closer to home and helps sell the parallels between the Soviet Presidium and other political administrations.”

(The script’s few attempts at period authenticity add yet another level of comedy; my favourite line in the whole film has to be Steve Buscemi shouting, “Can we just stop twittering like fishwives at the market?”)

What I love about this movie is how it demystifies the Soviet Union by highlighting the inherent absurdities of totalitarianism. A dying Stalin receives sub-par medical attention because all the good doctors in town have been arrested. The Politburo struggles to square their desire for reforms with their belief that no policy of Stalin’s could possibly be wrong. Michael Palin’s Molotov is such a staunch loyalist that he can’t make up his mind whether his beloved wife’s imprisonment under Stalin was justified or not.

It’s to Iannucci’s credit that he’s able to mock his subjects without without downplaying the atrocities they committed. (The film is particularly explicit in exposing the sadism of Lavrentiy Beria, the former Secret Police head who gets his comeuppance in the final scenes.) Though his memory looms large, Stalin himself is denied any pretense of dignity; his corpse is the source of much scatological humour.

In a way, The Death of Stalin gives these tyrants the legacy they deserve. Despots like Joseph Stalin thrive on fear; there’s some justice in seeing one of history’s worst mass murderers reduced to a joke.

Film: The Death of Stalin

Year: 2017/2018

Director: Armando Iannucci

Starring: Steve Buscemi / Simon Russell Beale / Jeffrey Tambor / Michael Palin

 

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