ARMANDO IANNUCCI has never shied away from giving politics and power the mockery it so richly deserves. His satire, from The Day Today to The Thick of It – and for American audiences, Veep – is invariably sharp, witty, and terribly biting and incisive. He can never be accused of pulling his punches. The Death of Stalin is no different, employing its historical setting to take aim at demagogues and democrats alike, and the absurdity that so often accompanies their struggles for power. And as Donald Trump’s administration continues its descent into a farce of Soviet proportion, the film seems particularly timely.
The Death of Stalin opens with Josef Stalin’s reign of terror in full swing. Immediately, the undercurrent of fear that runs throughout the film is set in motion, with Paddy Considine’s superb early turn as a manic radio producer desperately reassembling an orchestra to record a performance for Stalin, and the near-endless applause given for him by his cobbled-together audience at his mere mention highlighting the almost absurd obsequiousness aimed at the dictator. Even posthumously, Stalin – cast as a kind of old-school East End crime boss – looms large, and the discovery of his body leads to a panicked refusal to acknowledge his death from his sycophantic inner circle.
It’s this inner circle that drives the film. The cast is almost impeccable, from Steve Buscemi’s furtive Nikita Khruschev, and Jeffrey Tambor’s vain Georgy Malenkov, to Michael Palin’s dopey Vyacheslav Molotov (he of cocktail fame) and a tremendous performance by Jason Isaacs as a boisterous, Yorkshire-accented war hero Georgy Zhukov. The best of the bunch – yet only as a first among equals – is Simon Russell Beale as secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria, who transitions brilliantly from Stalins sycophantic servant to the terrifying, sinister villain of the piece, set against a backdrop of real history, like the flowers gifted to his rape victims.
The film is dominated by a troika of fear, farce and fake news. There’s a very real tension as Khruschev and Molotov plot against Beria’s rapid accumulation of power after their erstwhile master’s death, which effortlessly descends into farce as poor old Molotov loudly condemns his hitherto dead wife (who was arrested by Stalin on trumped-up charges), even as Beria produces her from off stage. There’s real history there: until his death in 1986, Molotov never stopped defending Stalin. It’s what the film excels at: fear and suspense lacquered with absurdity and a slew of historical in jokes.
Characters spend more time arguing over the curtains than making any attempt to run the country.
There are, of course, parallels to be drawn. The increasingly manic characters apparent inability to actually run the country seems tellingly reminiscent of the government of Donald Trump, for instance. Characters spend more time pettily arguing over the curtains at Stalin’s funeral than making any attempt to run the country. Even Beria’s attempt to secure influence by releasing all of Russia’s political prisoners is part of an effort to make the situation even more baffling and uncontrollable for his rivals, who, struggling to adjust to reality having spent so many years in the thrall of a boss who expected unthinking loyalty, are entirely wrapped up in their own schemes.
But Iannucci has wisely chosen not to draw too many direct comparisons. Although it’s easy to compare the comedy to the real-life absurdity of Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, and others, it’s up to the viewer to imprint that truth on the film on their own. Joyless commentators like Peter Hitchens (objectively the worst Hitchens) have criticised making a joke out of a murderous dictator whose memory still lives on in the Russian consciousness, so it Iannucci has probably made the right call by eschewing a more on-the-nose style of satire. Instead, the headless chickens that run around pretending to run the Soviet Union make a far more effective implied jab at contemporary politics.
Overall, The Death of Stalin is a tremendously funny film, that provides icily sharp comedy with chilling terror in equal measure. Superbly paced and expertly cast, it never fails to miss its mark, and, although lacking some of a the spikiness of Iannucci’s previous offerings, the implied contemporary parallels it draws are enough to keep it timely and prescient. The film’s relentless mockery of politics, terror, and dictatorship perfectly encapsulates the manic absurdity that has accompanied the pursuit of power not just in 1950s Russia, but throughout history, and in our increasingly ludicrous present.