How does one satirize a political moment that seems long ago to have transcended satire? This was the dilemma faced by Armando Iannucci, the creator of HBO’s Veep and, before it, his still-more-acidic portrayals of U.K. politics, The Thick of It and In the Loop. But those were all pre-Trump (Iannucci left Veep in 2015), before the membrane between political comedy and political reality had been ruptured so completely. How to keep up?
Iannucci’s solution was to abandon the (relative) decorum of the Anglo American experience altogether and instead scratch at one of the darkest moments of the 20th century: the aftermath of Stalin’s Great Purge and the power struggle that ensued following his death. The result is a comedy so black that it recalls the words of the immortal Nigel Tufnel: It could be “none more black.”
The film opens gently enough. Radio Moscow is broadcasting a live concert of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, when its director (Paddy Considine) receives a call from Stalin’s office: The General Secretary would like a recording of the performance and is sending men over to retrieve it forthwith. There’s only one problem: The performance wasn’t recorded. So the station director does the only thing he can, commanding everyone—musicians, conductor, audience—to stay where they are for an immediate repeat performance. “Don’t worry,” he notifies the crowd. “Nobody’s going to get killed.”
This is not, as it happens, an idle reassurance. The year is 1953, and Russians are being killed on a whim by the hundreds and thousands, rounded up daily for torture, imprisonment, exile, or execution. No one is safe, as is made clear at a boozy, late-night meeting of the Soviet Central Committee, made up of Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) and a coterie of grovelers: his weak-minded, weak-willed deputy, Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor); the ruthlessly cunning head of the secret police, Beria (Simon Russell Beale); the quasi-inept plotter Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi); the elder statesman Molotov (Michael Palin); and assorted others. When Malenkov asks whatever became of a former colleague, a pall draws over the room, until Beria and Khrushchev begin clowning around to distract Stalin from his potentially lethal rage. At one point, Beria leaves the table to give the day’s “lists” to his lieutenants. (“Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it … Kill him, take him to his church, and dump him in the pulpit … I’ll leave the rest up to you.”)
As I said, none more black.
Even after Stalin dies of an abrupt cerebral hemorrhage, his grip on his underlings—and the nation—remains tight. “Stalin destroyed the status quo and he built a new one,” Beria explains, and everyone, however high or low, struggles to determine which rules still pertain and which are now up for grabs. Informed that she is being released from prison because Stalin has died, a woman weeps, “Our Stalin?” Yes, she is reminded, the one who put you in prison. Though Stalin himself has passed, his amorphous reality still pertains: Today’s truth (My wife was a traitor) may be inverted 180 degrees by tomorrow (My wife was a good woman framed by conspirators). Allegiance to the party line is paramount; the trick lies in determining, at any given moment, what that party line might be.
It is on this political-funhouse terrain that the remaining Central Committee members—soon joined by Field Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), head of the Red Army—hatch their plots and counter-plots, alliances and betrayals. It’s clear from the start that Beria and Khrushchev will be competitors, but Beria is always a step ahead: first to Stalin’s body; first to contact his daughter; first to alter the military facts on the ground. Moreover, he has Malenkov in his pocket, and however dim-witted the latter may be, he is now the Committee’s titular leader. Those among you who are familiar with the name “Lavrentiy Beria” will know how this all turns out; and those of you who are not—well, that pretty much speaks for itself, no?
It is a precarious balancing act that Iannucci has undertaken here, and it is for the most part wickedly (in every sense of the word) funny. With The Thick of It and In the Loop, Iannucci hit the satiric sweet spot, just one small twist from reality; Veep has been somewhat broader, especially in its later seasons. With The Death of Stalin—based on the 2010 French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin—Iannucci has largely abandoned verisimilitude in favor of straight farce, poking fun at the idea of the thing, rather than the thing itself. The jokes are a bit less razor-sharp (“You’re a testicle”) than in prior efforts, especially on those occasions when they take a stab at mid-century Russian colloquial (“Can we just stop twittering like fishwives at the market?”).
Iannucci's decision to have the cast all speak with their natural accents takes a bit of getting used to (having Stalin rendered in McLoughlin’s native Cockney is particularly unexpected), as does the integration of rather disparate acting styles. Renowned stage actor Beale settles into the role of Beria quickly and serves as the principal engine of the film, at least until Isaacs (better known as Lucius Malfoy) shows up as the flamboyantly macho Zhukov. Buscemi works his way into Khrushchev more gradually, and Tambor’s Malenkov remains rather too flaccid throughout. (The character could have used a touch more George Bluth.) Olga Kurylenko plays a crucial (if ahistorical) role as a concert pianist, and Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend appear as Stalin’s grown, if not exactly grownup, children.
It’s a testament to Iannucci’s comic gifts that despite such complications the enterprise generally holds together, becoming neither too daffy nor too cruel. One notable misstep, however, is the inclusion of a subplot regarding Beria’s all-too-historical fondness for raping young girls, right down to the detail of the flowers they’d be offered the next day as proof that the encounter was “consensual.” It may be possible to somehow portray such horrors within the contours of black comedy, but Iannucci seems hardly even to try; better if he had left out this sordid scenario altogether. (Its inclusion is especially odd given that the director shies away from other controversial material, omitting the anti-Semitism that was central to so many of Stalin’s actions during the period in question. Despite several references to the “Doctors’ plot,” for instance, there is no mention of its anti-Semitic nature.)
It is ironic that The Death of Stalin was shot in 2016, after Donald Trump had firmly embedded himself in America’s political narrative, but when the prospect of a Trump presidency still seemed almost impossibly remote. Because, in its way, this is a film that seems precisely attuned to the current moment: a capricious, unpredictable leader, basking in a cult of personality; the introduction of “alternative facts”; the swift, party-wide swerves on subjects as various as negotiating with North Korea, paying off porn stars, and even Russian efforts to subvert a U.S. election. The fear of Stalin’s flatterers that he might have them killed is—obviously—vastly different than that of Trump’s that he might have them fired. But the echoes are not hard to hear. (This week alone, there’s been the defenestration of Rex Tillerson and widely reported rumors that Trump may have his own new and ever-changing list: Carson, McMaster, Sessions, Shulkin, Kelly … ) Iannucci did not intend The Death of Stalin to be a direct commentary on the Trump presidency, and it should not be taken as one. But as they say: First time tragedy, second time farce. Here’s hoping it stays that way.