The Death of Stalin (2017)

Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin has a hook at once mortifying and utterly irresistible: depicting the aftermath of the demise of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1953 as a blackly comic farce about the scurry for power. Adapting a French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, Iannucci returns here for his first shot at cinema since he brought his TV satire The Thick of It to the big screen as In the Loop (2009). His conceits stretch to netting a transatlantic cast, seeking the talents and specific performative qualities of his various actors, including Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov, Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov, and Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria. Molotov’s cagey capacity to keep maintaining the party line in the face of all evidence of his eyes and ears suits the neurotically repressed aura of the Monty Python imprimatur, just as Tambor’s gift for drippy pomposity is precisely tailored to fit Iannucci’s concept of Malenkov and Buscemi’s brand of snappy, brittle defensiveness makes Khrushchev into a figure reminiscent of his lead role in the TV series Boardwalk Empire, as an accomplished predator who nonetheless earns sympathy because he seems somehow like an ordinary guy trying to bite himself off a piece. 

The film opens with an elaborate reconstruction of an event that supposedly occurred in 1944 (but probably didn’t), transposed to the eve of Stalin’s death in March 1953, in which famed concert pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) and other musicians are obliged to re-perform a concerto they’ve just played on radio because Stalin called up the luckless producer (Paddy Considine) and demanded a recording of it. Yudina gives in to the producer’s pleas so she can stash a note in the LP sleeve accosting Stalin for his crimes. Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) receives the recording after one of his nightly drinking sessions with his fellow high-ranking party officials, men who all to some extent inhabit positions in the regime which smudge the boundaries between being partners in dictatorial authority and timorous underlings. Stalin laughs at Yudina's note, but then immediately suffers a stroke and collapses to the floor.

Discovered the next day lying in a pool of urine, the members of the presidium flock to ascertain whether the man is really dead. They have trouble finding doctors who can make sure, because so many have been killed or sent to Siberia following a recent purge, and must overcome the ingrained inertia of decades where no-one made a move without the dying man’s say-so, and when the slightest mistake was punished with quick extermination. Malenkov, essentially a charmless and malleable yes-man, ascends into Stalin’s chair because of his place in the hierarchy and makes his play to assume his role as beloved figure at the heart of the state. But the real players for inheriting the leadership are Khrushchev, the slightly absurd but canny hero of Stalingrad, and Beria, head of the NKVD, the secret police. Beria is a monstrous fiend who nonetheless has a human allegiance, to Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), whilst Khrushchev senses he might be attacked through his closeness to Yudina, who taught his daughter piano and might have once been his lover. 

Iannucci’s brand of satire is predicated around the same basic ideas that fuelled the beloved TV series Yes, Minister forty years ago; chiefly that contemporary politics are the manifest by-product of entrenched forces of continuity, like the civil service or corporate interests, making friction against the easily manipulated venality and short-term vision of elected officials. Iannucci punched up this template by throwing in more swearwords and pop culture references and making his movie editions revolve around more dramatic circumstance – the Iraq War in In The Loop, The Great Terror here, a move that feels like borrowing the finery of real import to dress up glib and minor insights. This frame reduces the world to a dichotomy that is supposedly scathing but is actually, perversely reassuring to a middle-class electorate: nothing much will change because it can’t and you might not really want it to anyway, and your leaders aren’t particularly more competent than you are. 

Iannucci’s vision strays into shaky ground the moment it moves away from a political system that depends as much on an uneasy but durable balance between an hidebound network of old boys and a personally rambunctious but publically mealy-mouthed political class. He tries to compensate for this here with some broadly suggestive ploys to his casting, like making Marshal Grigori Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) a Geordie bruiser wrapped in comic opera warrior garb, to try and elucidate the composition of influences in the Soviet state, using the different accents and acting styles to highlight the diversity of regions and power blocs in the system, the disparities in character, political methods, and approaches to survival. But there’s no consistency to the approach: Buscemi playing the Georgian Khrushchev sounds completely different to the also-Georgian Stalin. Zhukov’s accent and demeanour merely suggests Iannucci merely wants us to associate martial force with yobbishness. 

The Death of Stalin isn’t entirely without precedent. Peter Duncan’s near-forgotten Children of the Revolution (1996) pulled some of the same tricks and indeed went a few steps further, in portraying decaying Stalinism as a sham where scrambling minions performed song-and-dance numbers to entertain their boss and giggled in glee when he was found dead. The Robert Duvall-starring telemovie Stalin (1992), although serious in tone, also exactingly portrayed the rituals of black comedy and humiliation that flourished around his dining table amongst his inner circle. In that work, Beria was played by Roshan Seth as an imp entertaining his fellows with grotesque mimicry of his victims, a flourish that was more memorable, frankly, than anything Iannucci comes up with, who wants dialogue and some very mild shtick purely to carry the weight of his theme. Iannucci casts Beria as a version of The Thick of It and In the Loop’s political head-kicker Malcolm Tucker, whose strident comic-horror value lay in his willingness to be shouty and insulting to people’s faces in a potent offence to English sensibilities. Here this idea has been tweaked so that Beria’s strident comic-horror value lies in his willingness to signal the intent to commit vicious cruelties and killings to people’s faces. Which is, I think you'll agree, not exactly equivalent. Iannucci casts the clash between Beria and Khrushchev as one between villain and underdog in spite of both men’s complicity in Stalin’s crimes, with Beria enjoying the freedom to rape women and sadistically taunt his prisoners.

Iannucci’s directorial and writing palette remain steadfastly televisual, offering a series of loosely orchestrated stand-about-and-argue scenes, punctuated by one sequence of real stylistic ambition, one in which Beria’s NKVD men barge into Stalin’s dacha and liquidate the staff whilst robbing its contents. Iannucci executes this as a series of whip-pans and travelling shots to convey the hectic but effective business of erasing the instantly past regime. But it’s also clumsy in its attempt to wring stark pathos from the casual murder that culminates when the leader of the assassin team is himself shot in the head, glimpsed in the retreating distance from the back of a truck, too clean-cut as a portrait of political homicide but also falling well short of the status of gallows humour, in spite of Iannucci’s jaunty staging. The Death of Stalin is almost desperate to be described as an audacious and bravura spectacle of acidic commentary, to be compared to the likes of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Or; How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). But to say that Iannucci’s aesthetic weapons are far too paltry to tackle this milieu feels like an understatement.

Iannucci’s point, that even a great and deadly despotism might run on principles not so different from the petty squabbles and personality clashes inherent in a church fete organising committee, has a sliver of validity, and a couple of the film’s best vignettes playing on this theme have historical basis, like a dash to get into cars and zip back to Moscow in the race to see who can grab the levers of power first. There’s some good humour to be had in the process of Malenkov trying to burnish his image to fit the dead chairman’s mould. Such efforts include trying to find a young girl Stalin appeared with in a photo that made him appear the perfect patriarch of state, so that Malenkov can recreate the picture. He has an official portrait touched up to make him look statuesque, but when it proves instead to make him look a drag queen, Malenkov quickly orders it burnt. But Iannucci here reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the difference between political messaging in a democracy, where the leaders try to fashion themselves to appeal to the populace, and such messaging in a state like the Soviet Union, where the iconography was constructed to teach the populace what the state expected. Iannucci might not necessarily care about the distinction, with the inference that he’s using this historical situation less to create an authentic portrait of it than to use it as a kind of in extremis template for his more familiar satiric trade. But that begs the question as to why Iannucci thinks he has the right to do that.

Iannucci’s arrhythmic direction and stiff staging of his dialogue scenes reinforces the film’s air of being indecisively trapped between postures, resulting in a film that doesn’t have the balls to be really, properly offensive: the bloodshed, apart from the one bastard who really deserves it, is elided, rendering it not funny but also not horrifying, so it’s not anything. Kubrick was able put across Dr. Strangelove for many reasons: for one thing, he wasn’t telling a true story, so he could invent and synthesise freely. Whilst Kubrick played his politicians and military men for laughs, the business of combat was realistic and precise and dynamically filmed, so his absurdity was located within a masterfully-observed facsimile of the real world. Iannucci’s cutaways to the business out on the streets as the NKVD take over Moscow and finish up gunning down citizenry coming to mourn over their leader are staged, by contrast, are mere illustrations, offered without specificity or skill. Iannucci seems to be trying to portray the properly ugly side of the regime seriously, but he does so in a way that demands no confrontation, no enraging, galling anger or tragic stature. 

Riseborough’s Svetlana bears a faint resemblance to Margaret Thatcher, lending the film another, more recent likeness, as if Iannucci is thinking about the games that deposed the Iron Lady, although the real Svetlana was not the kind of dull, coddled naïf presented here (and of course, neither was Thatcher). Rupert Friend has fun in a juicier, more entertaining part as her brother, the drunken, incompetent Vasily, who seems like the tide pool where all their father’s paranoia and reactive instability collected. Kurylenko gives the film’s most incisive performance however as Yudina, whose religious conviction informs her embodiment of the cold and unyielding rage harboured in stiff-necked silence towards the regime. Kurylenko is effective in large part because she’s the only actor allowed to play a proper character, in a way that rather uncomfortably offsets the other caricatures. The attempt to give Beria a human side in his solicitude towards Svetlana and Yudina’s relationship with Khrushchev helps reduce Iannucci’s theme to a sentimental banality: they’re bad but they’ll protect the women.

Iannucci makes Beria’s downfall, implausibly, his inability to restrain his frustration, like a middle-manager losing his temper with his fellows for not giving him enough credit, resulting in a tirade that allows Khrushchev to convince the other party hierarchs to oust and destroy him. Khrushchev turns to Zhukov, the hero of the Great Patriotic War, who’s happy to help him after a little cruel mirth in pretending to intend reporting his suggestion. Isaacs makes a meal of his part as the scar-faced, stridently charismatic soldier, giving it the outsized, bullish energy Iannucci requires, although the real man, who we perhaps today owe more to than any other for defeating the Nazis and who was repaid by Beria’s engineered deposing and exile, is not done many favours. The party secretaries and their bully boys quickly submit Beria to a kangaroo court in a shed before Zhukov drags him outside and shoots him in the head. Here, at least, Iannucci manages to conjure some real ferocity in the spectacle of long-withheld revenge being swiftly dealt out, offering the sight of a vicious bastard being hoist by his own petard but finding no pleasure in it. Otherwise The Death of Stalin lies about dictatorship and democracy in a way that makes me intensely uneasy, allowing plenty of opportunity for platitudes about its relevance to more recent events and persons whilst ignoring actual history, and offering a punch-line, with a smugly grinning Brezhnev (Gerald Lepkowski) fated to take the premiership off Khrushchev, as if the Cuban Missile Crisis and its aftermath was just a ruse for an All About Eve joke.

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