A Farce So Dark It Will Make You Laugh: The Death of Stalin
It’s original. It’s hilarious. It’s scary. Kudos to director Armando Iannucci for pulling it off.
Here’s a line from one of the reviews that expresses my initial response to this film: “Nothing better than stumbling on a movie like this one without having a clue what it’s going to be.”
The film is a comic farce and within minutes you know what you’ve gotten yourself into. At the end of an orchestra performance featuring a famous pianist, Josef Stalin calls and asks the concert director if they recorded it. A panic ensues because they did not. The director, beside himself with restrained terror, orders everyone to stay so they can re-create the piece and record it for Stalin. Some have left so he orders others to go out to the streets and bring people in so the symphony hall sounds full. The pianist refuses to play because Stalin killed some of her family. Persuading her to play again becomes yet another life and death crisis.
Satisfying Stalin’s every whim in order to avoid crossing him becomes a critical imperative. You quickly see how stressed out everyone at every level is because at any moment their own names can be put on “the list.” Name on the list means exile or elimination.
The sudden unexpected death of Stalin leads to increasingly absurd situations. A power struggle the likes of which you’ve never seen before ensues. Steve Buscemi as Nikita Kruschev is a kick. Michael Palin of Monty Python is Molotov. The cast and the script are spot on.
I can’t recall the source of this anecdote about Stalin, but it’s my understanding that this is a true story that sums up what life was like there. On one occasion Stalin gave a speech to Russia’s equivalent of Congress, and upon completion the required hearty applause ensued. As Stalin watched the applause continued. And continued. And continued. No one wanted to be the first to stop clapping for fear that they would be shot.
If you watch this film, the more you know about the arbitrary terror that went on in Stalin-controlled territories, the better you’ll understand the paranoia and fear the pervaded everything. As Orwell so vividly portrayed in 1984; as Solzhenitsyn so powerfully established in his three volume Gulag Archipelago; as Heinrich Böll showed in his story “My Melancholy Face” —life was very different behind the Iron Curtain.
Here’s what one reviewer at IMDB.com wrote.
The film quickly shows a Stalinist Russia that is ruled by fear, where no Moscow apparatchik can be sure of living to the end of any day. Having jailed or killed the nation’s best doctors, Stalin’s stroke is pure karma. His bodyguards outside hear the mighty ruler crash to the floor but were commanded not to interrupt him under any circumstance. As he lay in a puddle of his own urine for several hours, his Central Committee henchmen enter the office one by one to profess their devotion but do nothing. As the tyrants-in-waiting Beria, Malenkov, Khrushchev, Zhukov, and Molotov join the gathering, it is clear that nobody wants Stalin to survive but all are terrified he might live to take it out on them.
The rest of the film is about the jockeying for position by these seven leaders of the Soviet Union’s executive committee. Who would end up holding the power? Who’s got the power now? Throw Stalin’s son and daughter into the mix as wild cards and you have no idea what will happen next.
The paranoia these people lived with at that time stretched from the common man in the street to the very top of the power pyramid. In its own comic way the film shows how you had to watch out for every single word you said, or for every opinion you had. Every action or even facial expression is freighted with meaning and potentially dangerous.
As I reflected on these things I realized that this film isn’t just about Stalin, or even mega-maniacal tyrants. There’s a sense in which these kinds of political machinations are taking place in board rooms all across our country. No one gets shot, of course, but many a career has been stonewalled or upended by knife-wielding peers.
Last words. The film is rated R for language, meaning it’s peppered with plenty of F-bombs, among other creative expletives. Just a consideration.
Some reviewers gave the film low marks, which caused me to realize this kind of humor is not for everyone. What’s hilarious to one is off-putting to another. For me, it kept cracking me up. I laughed out loud and enjoyed it throughout.