Film Review – Death of Stalin

From writer-director Armando Iannucci, the man behind political comedies like VeepIn the Loop and The Thick of It, comes this wickedly satirical movie about the power vacuum created by the death of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953 and the struggle between members of his inner circle to take control. I thought it was a great mockery of power structures and the immorality of self-appointed leaders, a masterful balance of tragedy and comedy that was as dark and disturbing as it was hilarious.

The cast is marvelous. Simon Russel Beale is pure evil as the ambitious Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s chief torturer and executioner; Jeffrey Tambor is the feckless Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s supposed replacement according to party protocol; Michael Palin is wonderful as Vyacheslav Molotov, the last of the original revolutionaries, now a largely broken man; and Steve Buscemi is terrific as the craftily pragmatic Nikita Kruschev, the man who really did go on to succeed Stalin. The supporting cast is populated by great talents as well, but for my money the most fun character by far was Jason Isaacs’ rendition of Field Marshal Zhukov, a swaggering war hero and vanquisher of the German army whose uniform is cartoonishly festooned with medal upon medal.

The script is sensationally well written, adapted from a French graphic novel with a clearly strong Iannucci spin. Time and again characters are faced with idiotic choices while pretending that nothing is wrong and everyone is constantly paranoid about being arrested or shot, which is completely valid in an atmosphere which saw all the best doctors either killed or exiled to the gulag, thus making the search for a doctor to treat Stalin in his death throes all the more darkly funny. A system where fear is the primary motivator and murder a technique of enforcement fosters a culture of avoiding responsibility and co-operation, and I felt this movie hilariously demonstrated that.

What made the movie work for me the most was the way in which it shows the totally amoral and sociopathic behaviour of vulgar brutes masquerading as civilized men, which is really comical. As Stalin’s inner circle competes for power, people are murdered quite casually and, in one scene, en masse. These moments cast a stark contrast against the political comedy unfolding behind closed doors, lending a bitter sting to the ludicrous maneuverings of the party chiefs which feel only too plausibly real. It’s difficult to know the true history of Soviet Russia, especially under Stalin, but I don’t imagine the real events were too far from what is depicted in this movie. Obviously, things are heightened for comedic effect, but you only need to look at the current situation at the White House to see some funny shit.

I loved The Dearth of Stalin. I thought it was tremendously funny, razor-sharp in its writing and populated by truly talented and perfectly cast personalities. I found it to be very lively and funny but also a little disturbing given the murderousness of the regime depicted. I still think it’s one of the best comedies about politics that I’ve ever seen, though, and highly recommend it even if you’re not into history or politics because it’s ultimately just a very funny commentary on human nature and power.