The Death of Stalin
Stalin meets slapstick in brutally funny political satire
The Death of Stalin (2018)
Directed by Armando Iannucci
Cast: Adrian McLoughlin, Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin
The Death of Stalin is a manic comedy with occasional doses of slapstick. The year is 1953. The location: Moscow. Joseph Stalin (British actor Adrian McLoughlin) is the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He rules with an iron fist over a frightened country thanks to “The Great Terror,” a program of systematic purges, a centrally enforced “cult of Stalin worship” and a punitive system of harsh labor camps known as gulags. Now that doesn’t exactly sound like the basis for uproarious slapstick, but Iannucci treats Communism to the same healthy disrespect he affords constitutional monarchies, federal republics and other representative democracies.
The film begins with an inspired piece of black comedy in which Stalin calls up the state radio station and asks for a recording of the symphony concert which has just ended. Unfortunately, the concert was not recorded. Fearing the likely fatal repercussions, paranoid engineers scramble to return audience members to their seats so the concert can start over again from the beginning. “Don't worry, nobody's gonna get killed. I promise you,” assures the theater manager. “This is just a musical emergency!” The harried conductor faints and is quickly replaced by “the best and nearest conductor in Moscow,” still clad in his pajamas. One musician rebels and refuses to play unless she is given a large sum of money. It’s like the tensest Marx Brothers skit ever shot.
After much hullaballoo Stalin receives his record, but the leader is struck down—mid-concerto—by a sudden cerebral hemorrhage. A coterie of his “loyal” advisors crowd his quarters the next morning, fretting over his inert body. Iannucci has crammed his ensemble cast with an impressive list of comic actors. Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi and Michael Palin are just a sampling of the front-and-center talent. Some wail in mock concern. Some fear for their future. Others start to scheme. What if Stalin dies? What if he doesn’t die? The still-paranoid collection of generals and ministers debate whether or not to summon a doctor. The problem is that Stalin has either killed or exiled all of the competent doctors in Moscow for being part of a “Zionist” plot. Should they then call a “bad” doctor? What if Stalin finds out they called a second-rate physician to attend to him? “If he recovers then it was a good doctor,” reasons Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi). “And if he doesn’t, then he’ll never know it was a bad doctor.”
Of course none of the patently British/American cast come across as remotely Russian. But that’s not really the point here. Iannucci doesn’t ask his actors to affect Russian accents. The dialogue is all thoroughly modern. And beautifully vulgar, it should be noted. Such anachronisms and incongruities only highlight the filmmaker’s point: It doesn’t matter if they’re Russian, British or American; politicians are all the same self-serving jerks. Epithets are hurled both loudly and under the breath. Most of the time our ensemble of petty, weak, stupid, amoral and generally incompetent political hangers-on squabble like kindergartners. But the scary-funny part is they’re kindergartners vying for control of the largest nation on Earth.
As the plot progresses, Stalin eventually expires, forcing his inner circle to organize a massive funeral. Khrushchev is stuck deciding between “ruched or non-ruched drapes.” Fatuous Secretary of the Central Committee Georgy Malenkov (Tambor) debates whether his photograph with “prominent cheekbones” or “non-prominent cheekbones” should be displayed. Iannuci piles on the cameos throughout, adding to the chaos and humor. Rupert Friend (“Homeland”) drops in and out as Stalin’s angry, frequently drunken son, who has to be dragged out of every room he enters. Jason Isaac (of the Harry Potter series) struts through as cocky war hero Field Marshal Zhukov.
Odd as it may seem, The Death of Stalin is like a highbrow stage version of Weekend at Bernie’s penned by Aaron Sorkin. Like Sorkin, Iannucci has a taste for that highly verbal, walk-and-talk, back-and-forth dialogue (most famously spotlighted in Sorkin’s “The West Wing”). But all that snappy dialogue is punctuated by a prominent corpse of a main character and some of the bleakest gallows humor in recent memory. Hey, if we can laugh at something called The Great Terror, maybe there’s a chance we can smile our way though our current political woes.