The Death of Stalin, directed by Armando Iannucci. Story by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, and Ian Martin. Starring Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, and Jeffrey Tambor. Distributed by Entertainment One Films (U.S. distribution by IFC Films). Rated R for language throughout, violence, and some sexual references. Running time 107 minutes.
Author’s note: This review contains spoilers for The Death of Stalin.
Comedy can be a powerful medium for expressing important ideas, and Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a standout example. Set around the time of Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, the film explores the power struggle that follows his death as various elements within the Communist Party move against each other to take control. Although the film presents a dramatized version of historic events, its portrayal of the philosophic essentials involved is accurate.
By default, the setting of The Death of Stalin lends it a dark tone. The film does not shy away from depicting the violence and disregard for human life that defined Soviet Russia. With murder a normal part of their daily lives, the main characters, most of whom held positions in Stalin’s government, joke about death and executions like someone today might joke about celebrity gossip. When they hear that one of their colleagues has been added to Stalin’s list of political enemies to be killed (“he’s on the list,” as they say), they talk about it with only the slightest hint of remorse, as though it’s an acceptable part of life.
Throughout the film we see several acts of full-on barbarism, including torture, soldiers firing into protesting crowds, and sham trials leading to executions. Many of the darkest elements involve Interior Ministry head Lavrentiy Beria, for whom murder is a daily routine and who boasts proudly about sexually abusing prisoners.
It might seem odd that such a dark film also can be a comedy, but the contrast between the gravity of these elements and the comedic aspects is part of what makes the film so powerful. Even as Iannucci uses shock and sadness to illustrate the evils of communism, he uses comedy to portray its absurdity. The film impresses upon the viewer the facts that communism not only results in massive human suffering, but that this suffering is inflicted in the name of a contradictory, illogical ideology that few of Stalin’s inner circle genuinely believed in.
Take, for instance, the scenes immediately following Stalin’s death. The committee formed by the remaining ministers is unable to decide what to do; it takes them until the following day even to arrange for doctors to ascertain if Stalin is dead (their predicament is made worse by the fact that Stalin had had all of the good doctors killed). Much of their energy is then spent feigning mourning and mouthing platitudes such as “I cried for Stalin, I cried for all the people” while simultaneously scheming to secure power in the new regime.
Later, in a well-crafted scene, the committee meets to elect its new head and decide how to move forward. Interim leader Georgy Malenkov is depicted as meek and not in control, at one point claiming, “People are looking to me for reassurance, and I have no idea what’s going on.” The other committee members vie with each other to influence his decisions while maintaining the pretense that every decision the committee makes is unanimous. The scene shows how each of the other members is manipulating Malenkov for his own ends while at the same time pretending to be of one mind, highlighting the shallowness of their belief in the communist idea that they’re all working for the good of the people.
A lot of the film’s comedy is aimed at Stalin’s two children, who—raised without ever needing to work for anything in a society where most people are destitute—are completely out of touch with the world around them. Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, at one point, demands that Beria bring back her friend who had been killed many years before. Beria had sheltered one prisoner on Stalin’s list, keeping her alive in anticipation of a change of power, leading Svetlana to think that her friend also could be “brought back.”
Again and again, characters refuse to take responsibility for anything, starting with the opening scene where two theater technicians blame each other for failing to record a musical performance. This recurring theme perfectly depicts an aspect of collectivist societies, wherein individuals are not expected—or allowed—to take initiative.
The film’s casting is excellent. Although every performance in The Death of Stalin is brilliant, three actors stand out. Boardwalk Empire’s Steve Buscemi brings a very human, almost likable quality to the scheming Nikita Khrushchev. Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor is masterful as the oft-exploited Malenkov. But perhaps the best casting choice is Jason Isaacs, star of Harry Potter and The Patriot, as Marshal Georgy Zhukov. Isaacs gives the military leader a sarcastic, jovial tone with a dark undercurrent. Zhukov sees right through the other characters’ pretenses, playing on their fear of falling out of favor and on their need to appear to be upholding communist ideals. Isaacs is both terrifying and hilarious as Zhukov, a boots-on-the-ground military man in a world of politicians, who turns the other characters’ own ideas against them.
Iannucci’s decision to have the actors use British and American regional accents, rather than attempt Russian accents or Russian dialogue, lends each of them a very distinctive tone. For instance, Adrian McLoughlin’s Cockney voice in the role of Stalin lends the mass murderer a kind of London mob boss sound that perfectly fits the character’s complete disregard for human life, whereas Jason Isaacs’s use of a bombastic northern England accent adds yet another layer of character to his portrayal of Zhukov. The result is a sense that you’re hearing the characters as they might sound to others in their own language, with all of their character traits intact.
Overall, The Death of Stalin is an entertaining and thought-provoking film that’ll make you laugh while also reminding you of just how inhuman communism is. It dives deep into the psychology of those living under such a system and lays bare the self-destructive mind-set of those who grasp wildly for power. Balancing comedy with such a serious message is a difficult task that could easily have gone horribly wrong, but The Death of Stalin rides the line perfectly. Iannucci has done a great service creating a film that shines a light on the true evil and absurdity of communism.
Click To Tweet