A dark comedy with an inappropriately antic tone, opening here a week after Purim, The Death of Stalin has something to offend everyone—Slavophiles and Slavophobes, The Nation and The National Review, erudite professors and historical ignoramuses, neo-Stalinists and anti-Stalinists of all persuasions.
As orchestrated by the British political satirist Armando Ianucci, best known here as the creator of the HBO series Veep, this impressively designed, perversely enjoyable movie travesties one of the most brutal regimes in human history. The Death of Stalin (opening March 9) is at once more lighthearted and more savage than the French graphic novels, by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, from which it was adapted. A Glaswegian of Italian descent, Iannucci was weaned on anti-fascism (and perhaps opera buffa) but he has perfected a distinctively British comic style—character-driven, realistically profane, steeped in panic and predicated on the spectacle of officious idiocy, with touches of Bertolt Brecht’s burlesque vision of the Nazis as Chicago gangsters, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Adrian Mcloughlin’s Josef Stalin is a jolly Cockney-inflected sadist who ends a night of heavy drinking with his flunkies by declaring, “Time for a cowboy movie—’oo is in my posse?” All of them, of course.
Michael Palin’s aged Molotov, the veteran foreign minister and old Bolshevik for whom a lethal cocktail was named, is a teary true-believer; Jeffrey Tambor’s Malenkov, Stalin’s presumed successor, is a dithering fool, the butt of jokes he never seems to get; Paul Chahidi’s Bulganin, the former defense minister, is a dapper twerp; Jason Isaac’s Zhukov, a World War II commander who makes a dramatic appearance later in the movie, is a swaggering tough guy who wears a military cape and refers to Stalin’s posse as “girls.”
Stalin’s actual children, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), are also on hand. They are respectively—and perhaps understandably—a paranoid hysteric and a drunken oaf. It helps to know something of the various historical actors to fully appreciate the parody. Still, given the splendidly clownish cast (and the mad variety of incongruous accents), it’s easy to imagine The Death of Stalin as a Monty Python project, and not just because of Palin’s nattering Molotov.
The movie’s two smartest characters are the Shakespearean actor Simon Russell Beale’s sinister Lavrenti Beria—the de facto head of security—and Steve Buscemi’s canny, underestimated Nikita Khrushchev, then the Moscow party boss. Not coincidentally, Beale and Buscemi give the richest performances. If Beale (seen as Churchill in Dunkirk) is a scary clown, more subtle and shrewder than Bob Hoskins’ memorably thuggish impersonation of Beria in Andrei Konchalovsky’s 1991 movie The Inner Circle, Buscemi is a clever one. Topping his unlikely turn as a stressed out rabbi in Joseph Cedar’s Norman, he’s largely sympathetic although, against all odds, Beale’s monstrous character manages to be affecting too—if only for a moment.
Had The Death of Stalin been made in the 1950s, it might have been called Carry on Comrade—and yet it suggests the venerable mantra, “think Yiddish, act” (or “dress” or “look”) “British.” The Death of Stalin is not as funny or as transgressive as The Producers but it has some of the same flavor. The spirit is less that of a Punch and Judy show than a Purimshpiel—particularly those Purim plays that, performed for and by Holocaust survivors in the immediate aftermath of WWII, conflated Haman with Hitler.
What suffering gave Iannucci license to make Stalin a joke? And how accurate is his movie? While few might agree with the historian Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov’s theory that Stalin was poisoned by Beria, perhaps with Khrushchev’s knowledge, both men, as well as other members of the Politburo, had reason to believe themselves the targets of the impending purge. (The obscure Ukrainian apparatchik Semyon Ignatyev, who was then in charge of Stalin’s security and was an ally of his landsman Khrushchev was certainly a player in the palace intrigue, if not a character in the movie.)
In keeping with its attitude, The Death of Stalin advances a novel theory of the dictator’s demise—his fatal stroke is brought on by a fit of laughter provoked by a feeble attempt by a young concert pianist (Olga Kurylenko) to challenge his authority. Plenty of stuff is, however, too crazy to have been invented by the filmmakers. The opening scene, in which a Mozart concert has to be repeated with the audience kept in their seats because terrified technicians forgot to record it per Stalin’s request, did in fact (or legend) occur, albeit a decade earlier during WWII. Stalin was a music lover. Strains of Mozart are subsequently heard in Beria’s Lubyanka dungeon.
Historians agree that Stalin suffered a stroke alone at his dacha and, because his bodyguards were afraid to enter his sancta sanctorum, lay comatose in urine-soaked pajamas for nearly a full day before Beria and other members of the Politburo arrived. It is also true that Stalin briefly regained consciousness, pointed mutely to a painting on the wall, and then died. Khrushchev’s memoirs describe a scene even more farcical than Iannucci’s movie:
No sooner had Stalin fallen ill than Beria started going around spewing hatred against him and mocking him. [But] as soon as Stalin showed these signs of consciousness on his face and made us think he might recover, Beria threw himself on his knees, seized Stalin’s hand, and started kissing it. When Stalin lost consciousness again and closed his eyes, Beria stood up and spat.
Although a rapist, pedophile, and torturer, the pathological Beria was also something of a pragmatist. As the film hints, he opposed Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign and wanted to dismantle the Gulag. Khrushchev, whose hands were not quite as bloody, was another would-be reformer. Essentially, The Death of Stalin is a slapstick chess match between the two.
Both scramble to cozy up to flighty Svetlana, seek to manage the crowds that flock to Stalin’s funeral, and mainly manipulate the vain and cowardly Malenkov who is the tyrant’s legal successor. Keeper of the files and master of the penal system, Beria has many more tricks up his sleeve than the apparently innocuous Khrushchev. It is true that Beria extracted Molotov’s Jewish wife (and former government minister) Polina Zhemchuzhina from prison—a setup for one of the movie’s cruelest jokes as dimwitted Molotov, who had stoutly defended her arrest, cannot fathom why this enemy of the people has been set free.
Malenkov’s near freak-out at the Politburo meeting where Beria is to be arrested is also factual. Molotov’s enthusiastic comment, “Stalin would be loving this!” is, of course, one more gag. Beria’s final moments—invented for the film—are another joke, although not quite so funny.
Even played for comedy, the conditions surrounding, the characters affected by, and the succession struggle that followed Stalin’s death are so rich in human drama as to be potentially Shakespearean. But The Death of Stalin is a film that has not yet and perhaps never will be made in Russia—indeed, polls indicate that Stalin’s popularity has steadily risen since the spring 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Conceived and largely filmed during WWII, Sergei Eisenstein’s multipart historical pageant Ivan the Terrible dared to comment on Stalin’s court while the monster was still alive; made some four decades later, the Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance was a farcical allegory predicated on Stalin’s (or Stalinism’s) unquiet corpse. However, the closest Russian movie to Iannucci’s is Alexei German’s phantasmagoric horror comedy, Khrustalyov, My Car!
Made 20 years ago amid the pre-Putin chaos of Boris Yeltsin’s reign, Khrustalyov unfolds in Moscow, over three days in 1953 when, his condition unknown to the Soviet people, Stalin lay dying. The Politburo’s confusion is manifest in the convoy of black automobiles that aimlessly roll through the night, as a prominent military brain surgeon is brought back from the brink of oblivion to minister to a mysterious patient. Deemed largely impenetrable outside Russia, German’s farcical Walpurgisnacht is thick with all manner of allusions—literary as well as political. Beria provides the film’s enigmatic title after Stalin expires, imperiously summoning his driver and leaving for the power struggle in Moscow.
Where Khrustalyov was consigned to critical Siberia, The Death of Stalin came under immediate attack last fall when (during the 100th un-birthday of the October Revolution) a prominent nationalist politician warned that the Iannucci’s film was part of an “anti-Russian information war” being waged by “the British intellectual class” (as payback for Putin’s alleged support of Brexit?) and a cultural ministry official termed it a “planned provocation.”
While the Russian culture minister had previously assured journalists that The Death of Stalin would not be banned (“we have freedom of speech”), it naturally was. Two days before the movie was to be released in January, the ministry withdrew its distribution license, charging that it “desecrates our historical symbols—the Soviet hymn, orders and medals—and Marshal Zhukov is portrayed as an idiot.” (Actually, although Zhukov is shown as a ridiculously belligerent Lancashire man, he is also far more decisive than the politicians who surround him.)
The culture ministry’s announcement came on the heels of a delay in the release of another British comedy, the children’s film Paddington 2, apparently so that it would not compete with the opening of Three Seconds (aka Going Vertical), a docudrama celebrating the victory of the Soviet basketball team over their American rivals in the 1972 Olympics. (Given current U.S.-Russian tensions, the movie has since become Russia’s all-time box office champ.)
A few days after The Death of Stalin was proscribed, Moscow police raided the Pioner Cinema, which, in defiance of the ban, had been screening The Death of Stalin to sellout crowds. (Appropriately, the Iannucci film would be replaced with Paddington 2.) The Pioner, located in a building in central Moscow that had once housed the city’s oldest movie theater, is a gem of Stalinist baroque architecture and a world-class cinematheque. A few years ago, I had the honor of introducing and discussing a movie there—namely, the greatest of Hollywood’s Cold War allegories, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The generally youthful audience was one of the most intelligent and knowledgeable I have encountered. Far more than the reserved suburban Londoners with whom I first saw The Death of Stalin last fall, these would have been the very people—Stalin’s great-grandchildren—who could really tell us what the movie was all about.
Read more of J. Hoberman’s criticism for Tablet magazine here.