Armando Iannucci’s lacerating second feature film is blacker than tar, and many Veep fans may not know what to do with it.
How can you run and plot at the same time?
Fittingly, it was Karl Marx who first uttered the line “History repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce,” but what The Death of Stalin shows is that it is constantly both, all the time, forever. How do you tell the story of one of the darkest chapters of modern history — Stalinist Russia, where millions of people were tortured and executed over decades for various causes, many fabricated — while highlighting the core absurdities and cognitive dissonances and petty, grubby human behavior that allowed it to last? There’s the danger of cheapening what was a truly monstrous event (call it the Life Is Beautiful effect), or of putting positive spins on truly monstrous people.
For the most part, no one in The Death of Stalin comes out clean; these are despicable people, through and through, some only looking better than others because they’re slightly to the left on the spectrum of despicableness, willing to turn on the worst of them to save their own skins. The comedy of powerful men brought low, anchorless and confused in their leader’s absence, doesn’t elicit belly laughs as much as a low groaning of recognition and a shaking of the head. It’s also the kind of comedy that only Armando Iannucci, known for writing politicians on both sides of the pond that sling obscene invective at each other like poison dart frogs, can do this well. Government clown cars are universal, it turns out; some are simply quicker to violence than others.
Based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury, The Death of Stalin covers the chaotic weeks following the titular event, as the Soviet Union’s squabbling secretaries jockey for power in increasingly desperate ways. Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of the secret police and personally responsible for uncounted rapes and murders, sees an opportunity to cast himself in a new light; less cynical is Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), a war criminal who nevertheless calls for reform behind the scenes. Stalin’s deputy, Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), is a feckless idiot in a girdle who just wants to be loved; Molotov (Michael Palin) had just himself been placed on one of Stalin’s death lists, but cries at the news of Stalin’s passing as loudly as anyone.
The sprawling cast also includes Paddy Considine as a harried radio man, Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s rage-filled daughter, Svetlana, Rupert Friend as Stalin’s delusional son, Vasily, who’s hoping that no one will notice his national hockey team was just killed in a plane crash, and Jason Isaacs as Field Marshal Zhukov, who joins the film late like a powerful boom of thunder heard from afar. Every one of these actors is either British or American, using their natural accents, but rather than distract from the “realism,” it enhances the comedy — the natural rhythms of gifted performers like Buscemi, Tambor, and Beale (a Royal Shakespeare vet) don’t need the artificiality of goofy Russian accents when the machinations on screen are already frighteningly familiar to Western audiences. A line like “If only we hadn’t put away all those highly competent doctors for treason” isn’t just a droll spin on history, but a harbinger of how much worse things can still get for us, now.
Iannuucci, one of our greatest living satirists, toes an improbable line in presenting a surprisingly accurate account of real events (Olga Kurylenko’s concert pianist really did slip a hate note into a record sleeve meant for the dictator; Stalin really did love John Wayne movies; the timeline of the military coup is accelerated, but largely correct) that wrings wry comedy out of material darker than the vacuum of space. As the secretaries bemoan “factionalism,” they can also see the writing on the wall for the restless populace, and some band together to convince themselves that Stalin was really a liberal and reforms are what he would have wanted. “I’ve had nightmares that made more sense than this,” says one. They fight over responsibilities for Stalin’s funeral, and who can deliver the better speech. The screenplay isn’t as chock-a-block of memorable insults as Veep or In the Loop, instead weaponizing the delivery, not the words themselves: “When I said ‘No problem,'” sputters Tambor beautifully, “what I meant was ‘No! Problem!'”
As feel-bad comedies go that feature firing squads and running gags about people turning in family members to the authorities, The Death of Stalin is stranger and bleaker than most Iannuuci fans will expect. Even the film’s ostensible “hero,” Khrushchev, is a complex figure; he lifted the Iron Curtain and released thousands from prison camps, but was also boorishly anti-intellectual, and ends the film just a few years from being disgraced himself. As Buscemi plays him, “Niki” has a lot in common with Selina Meyer: fickle, perpetually humiliated, and whatever good he does is first to benefit himself. But he and his allies are still trapped in the same cycles of violence and paranoia, believing that this execution will be the last one, and then they can turn the corner. Authoritarian rule can be an exhausting game of Whac-a-Mole, no matter your intentions, and it’s to Nury and Iannucci’s credit that we never really sympathize with these morons, but can’t just laugh them off, either.