The Death of Stalin: Inspired Black Comedy With Lots of Stalin

The Death of Stalin
Stalin. Death. Michael Palin. We all win!

After In the Loop the other week, we now have the Death of Stalin. An erstwhile friend of ours during our university days had never heard of Stalin. Can you believe that? We’re sure she wasn’t Stallin‘ for ideas about other maniacal despots, but we guess Stalin doesn’t have the universal psychopath appeal of someone like Adolf Hitler. The latter is more mainstream.

Now, Joseph Stalin (the purveyor of mass terror) had a stroke in March of 1953. This brought to an end his reign of paranoid terror, which had held an entire nation captive for a very long time. With millions dead (the total figure is unknown) because of him, you may think this is an immoral topic for a comedy film. Well, it’s satire, that’s how it should roll, and this jet black comedy from Armando Iannucci doesn’t shy away from the real horror of what was going on.

The Death of Stalin

Now, the one thing we will say is the trailer doesn’t depict the film properly. It comes across as a jaunty comedy, which is misselling its main qualities. Make no mistake, despite the occasional slapstick moment and incredulous farce, the film is as dark as they come. This element is portrayed mainly by stage actor Simon Russell Beale’s brilliant performance as the despicable Lavrentiy Beria (a complete psychopath, if you dare to read up his history).

Anyway, the plot involves the sudden demise of Stalin. His political cohorts (probably the wrong word – disciples, maybe) are finally, after decades of subservience, able to break free from their enforced sycophancy to make a break for control of Russia. That’s when it all gets a bit crazy. However, it should be noted many scenes are based on fact, such as below.

Here, apparently Stalin rang a radio studio and demanded a live recording of a Mozart performance. As they didn’t have the recording, to avoid probable death, the station manager hastily rearranged a re-recording. Such are the joys of politics, eh?

It must be noted the historical accuracy is, deliberately, it seems, distorted and timelines are out of place. The most egregious (oh, check out that word!) example is the deliberate use of the respective actors’ voice during the film. There aren’t any fake Russian accents here, it’s just the actors using their voices. It’s refreshing, especially if you’ve seen Sean Connery’s bizarre turn from Russian to Scottish in the Hunt for Red October.

Khruschev VS Beria

The Death of Stalin really develops into a playoff between Beria and Nikita Kruschev (Steve Buscemi). The latter actor in brackets is probably most famous for his brilliant performance in Fargo, but the former fireman is up to good standards as well here, especially when the plot develops and Beria is exposed as… well, a deranged pervert (again, read up on that if you have a thick skin).

There’s an all-star cast involved, including Jason Isaacs (Hello to Jason Isaacs, the Church of Wittertainment). Actually, Isaacs has one of the best roles in the film as Georgy Zhukov – he plays the role with a strong, foul-mouthed Yorkshire accent. If you’re not English, then that’s like playing Abraham Lincoln with someone from Jamaica, man.

Ultimately, this is one heck of a dark film. The final sequences play out horrifically, but are accurate to history. Whilst the natural facade of power-play politics runs its course with the cast of characters, ultimately it descends away from the antics of a despot into a new era of Russian life, where Communism was skewed beyond its real purpose, where the Chernobyl disaster seemed an inevitability, and where the aftermath has shaped a world where deranged oddball Putin feels trigger-happy in London. Twice. Joy.

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