On the 5th of March, 1953 the people of the Soviet Union faced the greatest tragedy of their time, as they prepared to mourn a man who murdered 20 million of their countrymen. Such a juxtaposition of emotions is the source of a comedy so black, light cannot escape its surface. It’s a blessing that the script can fire off so many rounds of laughter ammunition so quickly because being allowed a mere two seconds of contemplation could invite the deepest despair and loathing for humanity.
The film deals with both the event of Stalin’s death and the aftermath, focussing on his knights of the round table, only instead of swords, they are all armed with – as Hitler was accused of wielding – the long knives. Yes, the second the man deified by half a nation (the other half were in mass graves) keeled over upon his now urine-soaked rug, his entire cabinet couldn’t even wait for his farts to be aired out of his seat cushions before they rushed to make themselves comfy.
Stalin is initially succeeded by Jeffrey Tambor’s Georgy Malenkov, a vein and sycophantic human, more concerned with being a symbol of the people than a servant of them. Steve Buscemi is the destined Khrushchev, a man initially shown to wear pyjamas underneath his business suit, makes a chilling transformation from court jester into a man of calculating, clockwork-like action after finding his ideas have been co-opted by the sickeningly evil Lavrentiy Beria, played by Simon Russell Beale.
The true star of the show, Beria is to the cinematic portrayal of the Communist Party what Shindler’s List’s Amon Goeth was for the Nazi’s. His position as head of security is not so much the motivation for his evil deeds, rather the excuse for it. We are introduced to him torturing a prisoner, but his real introduction comes when he salivates at the idea of what the poor prisoner’s wife will do to save him, as countless others have done before. Just thinking about the magnitude of this man’s depravity and the thousands of lives it touched is paralysing in its horror.
Beale is a much-lauded stage actor with no previous breakout role in film, much like Mark Rylance was before Bridge of Spies, and much like Rylance, now he’s had a screen role worthy of his skill, a trickling of scripts being delivered to his door must surely now turn into an avalanche. First port of call must surely be Warner Bros. demanding he use that pointed nose and pot belly of his to join the DC universe as The Penguin.
Aside from the excellently judged performances from one of the greatest collections of comedic talent this side of a Christopher Guest mockumentary, the other key to this film’s ample success is the incredible craftsmanship put in by writer and director Armando Iannucci. Known for his farcical exposes on the stupidity and malfeasance of those who hold the most authority over our societies, you wonder how his constant excursions down the path of political madness haven’t driven him mad also. And he finds the motherlode in Mother Russia.
Here he directs a hurricane of a camera around the disaster zone of these men’s tortured psyches. The camera keeps the audience’s head on a constant swivel, forcing them to be as justly paranoid as the bureaucrats who under constant threat of being dragged off to a firing squad. Even the film’s bit players and extras are constantly running off screen as if the celluloid will be used as the evidence that will send them off to their deaths. Meanwhile, the camera constantly surveys its surroundings for potential victims.
One of his masterstrokes is that if no one in this film is going to speak Russian, then why would they sound it? No one in this film sounds like they are from anywhere near that side of the Iron Curtain, all the western actors choosing to keep their native accents or pinching one from nearby. Paul Whitehouse, for example, brings his sketch expertise to his role as the Foreign Trade Minister, Anastas Mikoyan, who he turns into a Boycie/Loadsamoney type cockney wheeler-dealer. Even better is Jason Isaacs’ gruff Strelkovkaian General by way of the Yorkshire Moors. Not even Buschemi or Tambor do anything to hide their American roots.
But as usual with an Iannucci brand catastrophe, the script will always be the crown jewel, especially if that crown jewel was stolen from a defenceless, neighbouring nation. The jokes are witty, the satire is on point, he constantly negotiates the line between hilarity and harrowing, and you will constantly find yourself bewildered at how this man has you laughing as such a bleak and dismal chapter in humanity. Every single exchange has a sinister meaning behind it, exposing the hypocrisies of powerful men whose nails are so thick with the dirt of their deeds even attempting to wash them would be futile. Still funny as fuck, though.
The Death of Stalin is one of this year’s best films, one of the finest comedies I have seen all decade and what it misses in the way of a Malcome Tucker figure, it more than makes up for with mass executions.
Dir: Armando Iannucci
Prd: Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Kevin Loader, Yann Zenou
Scr: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Paddy Considine, Andrea Riseborough, Paul Whitehouse, Rupert Friend
DOP: Zac Nicholson
Music: Christopher Willis