Comedy is the unexpected, and few would pick Joseph Stalin’s Russian rule as a punchline, but Veep creator Armando Iannucci has made a career out of the political satire. The Death of Stalin is not only unexpected, but sharp, witty, and effectively spurious.
The film begins in 1953, with a Mozart recital. Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is older, but not yet “frail,” as he listens to the performance on Moscow Radio. This subtle and quiet opening is interrupted by the dictator calling the radio station to request a copy of the performance. #Easy
Except, the recital was not recorded.
As the station personnel bungle a re-performance to record the piece, having to replace the conductor after he faints and hits his head on a fire pail, chaos ensues.
However, this opening and joke at once hides and demonstrates a larger challenge for Iannucci.
Iannucci not only needs to demonstrate the despotic and conniving political landscape of Russia, but also the underlying “comedy” behind it. The Moscow Radio opening accomplishes that as we see the fearful paranoia, especially as the radio programmer believes the station is bugged. Ianncuci, as they say in Mother Russia, has to kill two political prisoners with one bullet, and succeeds.
The film is also made instinctively lampoonish with its mix of accents, as Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) have American accents, while Stalin, Vasily (Rupert Friend), Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), and Molotov (Michael Palin) all retain their English accents. The only character who remotely matches a Russian accent is Beria (Simon Russell Beale).
But that obvious skirting of “reality” is the charm behind The Death of Stalin, as there are few cheap laughs. Yes, there is a reliance on slow-mo effects for easy snickering, but they’re used sparingly. A good punchline is never overused in this film. And barring those quick jabs, the film is confident in the audience’s ability to know what’s funny without throwing it in their face. In short, the comedy assumes that you’re intelligent.
It’s the constant planning, double crossing, and purges after the death of Stalin where the film finds its most fertile ground. Typically, public executions aren’t funny (I know, surprised me too), yet the scene with the prisoners being shot in their heads is one of my favorite moments.
To think, in the middle of a communal death sentence, shooting ceases immediately under new orders “from the top.” A prisoner looks over to the pile of dead bodies not believing his luck. On its face that’s probably the least hilarious joke in existence. But Soviet Russian “humor” is made British because of the capriciousness of the purges. As those who were arrested for death 48 hrs prior, are released 48 hrs later, while others who were once safe are taken instead. It’s the type of perfect comedic moment, when harsh truth through another lens is a joke.
The Death of Stalin also demonstrates not only the sycophantic worshiping of the dictator, but also the waning belief in his aura. Molotov, who still believes that his wife, who was convicted of “treason” in what he knows was a fake tribunal, is guilty, and Malenkov, who is the weak successor who has waited in the shadows to seize power and denounce Stalin, demonstrate this contradiction.
Nevertheless, I do have a couple massive issues with The Death of Stalin. Primarily, the pacing. As the film drudges along in its final act. Rather than depending on an “all will be revealed in good time” plot, I’d rather have seen some people in power killed ala Quentin Tarantino style. Conversely, I wish more acknowledgment of Stalin’s victims had been paid at the end of the film. Too much of the film gets a laugh off their backs, without consciously realizing the magnitude of the atrocities.
And while I understand that most comedies do not seek out heavy handedness when it comes to memorializing, yet, it feels like a film based on traumatic events, even as part of a larger joke, should do so.
Conversely, the film is at its strongest when it’s uncovering these moments of double-think, when someone like Beria is at once a pedophile, a reformer, a scheming tyrant, a negotiator, a pencil pusher, and a sadistic torturer (which there is also the under current of Beale’s co-star, Tambor, having sexual assault allegations brought against him only a few short months ago). Beale makes The Death of Stalin hum, even when it’s become too lengthy for its own good, especially when he delivers the line that encapsulates not only the film, but the comedic timing of the whole affair: “trust no one.”