By Jake Rutkowski.
The process of interpersonal grievances and small-scale ironies rippling out into matters of national security is at this point a calling card for celebrated Scottish satirist Armando Iannucci (he of Alan Partridge, The Thick of It / In the Loop, and Veep fame). It’s fair to say that The Death of Stalin, his latest and second feature, is a realization of that craftwork on a world historical level. The result is a film that is ethically murky at times, but generally whip-smart in a way that makes the context seem like so much set dressing throughout. That sort of misdirection is part of the point here. As the deceptively sober title suggests, the film dramatizes the days immediately preceding and following the death of Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin and the power struggles that arose as a result. Specifically, it tells of the back-biting maneuvering that unfolds as Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) jockey to fill the fourth Premier’s vacancy, each using nominal successor Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) as a (largely useless) bit of leverage. Scores of Russians are rounded up and summarily executed. A notorious world leader dies an ignominious death. His daughter grieves. His comrades quarrel. All is slightly controlled chaos and bloodshed and misogyny. Hilarity ensues. Iannucci reaches into an ideological quagmire and, while he emerges with a fair amount of muck splashed back on him, finds some objectively funny material. Despite the messiness of the subject matter, the film’s credit is its neatly packaged and tightly organized narrative construction, which enables an unflappable joke machine that one can’t help but marvel at from time to time.
This tight pacing is broadcast from the very beginning of the film, as theater director Andreyev (played by the always welcome Paddy Considine) scrambles to coax an orchestra and its audience into sticking around for an encore performance. Stalin has demanded a recording of the concert, which was not taped, and the director knows that failure to meet his Premier’s expectations could land him in a gulag or facing a firing squad. Calamity after calamity unfolds in a scene loaded with sharp comedic dialogue and perfect slapstick, and Andreyev proclaims to the crowd that they are having a “musical emergency,” a phrase that describes the film’s tone nicely. Because the counterpoint running alongside this scene is a montage of secret police rounding up anyone on Stalin’s “enemies lists,” ripping apart families and pulling people into prison cells for torture and execution. It’s a complex black humor symphony that Iannucci conducts, balancing real world atrocities with guffaws over office-politics-level pettiness. To be sure, this sharp contrast functions as a crutch on which the comedy leans, as it seems impossible to be laughing at such a violent and tumultuous moment in Russian history. At some point, around when Beria’s sexual exploitation of working class women is just sort of tossed into the swirl of jokes and plot details, I began to wonder if the tonal dissonance was worth the laughs. Which is to say that ultimately, as a zippy comedy with hilarious set pieces, Stalin works, but as a piece of political satire, its project sort of collapses in on itself.
About those set pieces. The film draws a lot of jokes out of the absurdity of byzantine bureaucratic procedures. A bit of a tired approach to satirizing communism perhaps, but it plays well here. A particularly memorable example is the first meeting of the cabinet after Stalin’s death, a well-choreographed round robin of proposals and vote counts and surreptitious glances. The performances are all carried out in the actors’ natural dialects, which adds a novel layer of humor in anachronism and contributes nicely to the film’s message on revisionism. Everyone is brilliant, even Tambor (if this is to be the beginning of the end for him, and let’s hope it is, he could’ve done worse), as they snarl and grimace and wax obsequious. Highlights include Andrea Burroughs, who plays Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, and who brings the same head-in-hands incredulity at the ineptitude of the patriarchy as Iannucci’s Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) in Veep. And Jason Isaacs, who rarely gets to be this loose, brings a welcome amount of hypermasculine bombast as the swashbuckling Field Marshal Zhukov. It is also a film that backs up its jokes by having done its homework, to a certain extent. Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, it finds humor in the little details about these historical figures, like the way in which Stalin’s inner circle groans through indulging him one of his Western vices: watching cowboy movies. There’s a fair amount of winking through the contradictions of Stalinism, which is warranted, but after a while it led me to wonder who exactly this movie is for.
Like another politically-charged send-up written by a British comedian, Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator (2012), The Death of Stalin attempts timely commentary while poking fun at the risible egomania of governmental strongmen. Unfortunately, playing moral depravity of an historically sensitive nature for laughs does display a degree of that artificial “anti-PC” comedy that I have no hesitation in identifying as an exceptionally dumb and lazy trend. And the film’s message is a bit uneven, serving as a sort of meditation on revisionism while openly admitting that even the primary sources on the subject are based in hearsay guided by ideology and politicking. In other words, it upends historical revisionism while stepping into some of the revisionist’s very same pitfalls, and skewers oppression while mimicking some baser societal impulses. As such, it’s hard to pinpoint where the propaganda ends and the satire begins. But it is funny and just barely humane enough that it qualifies as at least a spirited effort in offering an ambitious genre film. Therefore, to both its credit and its detriment, it is a good film for our post-truth reactionary moment. And perhaps that should be enough to ask for. If we’re going to wake up to a new crop of blatantly fascistic horrors every day, the least we can do is get some laughs in from time-to-time.
Jake Rutkowski holds an MA in English from Rutgers University in Camden, where he studied genre semantics and the African-American hero in Western films of the 1970s. He helps program the Reel East Film Festival, regularly covers film at Identity Theory and Cutting to Continuity, and is a contributor to the forthcoming collection David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.