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The satirical bite of “The Death of Stalin”

The inner circle discover Stalin’s body… and hilarity ensues.

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

A healthy dose of cynicism is necessary when looking at the world of politics, either from a wide-lens historic framework or in the microscopic moment of what might seem to be a crisis point. We want to believe, to have faith in the good intentions of the people operating behind the closed doors of power or, better yet, the supreme wisdom and genius these people will apply when faced with trying circumstances. But sometimes we have to recognize that we’re sadly left with the absolute worst of human nature or the pure inanity of those in power; try figuring out the lesser of these two evils.

In “The Death of Stalin,” Director Armando Iannucci, co-scripting with David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows (based on the comic book “The Death of Stalin,” which was written by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin), dares to offer audiences the worst-case scenario with the blackest comedy that impossibly never surrenders to bleak fearmongering. From a Western perspective, we know from the start that we’re in the presence of a despot.

Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) needs no introduction. Stalin co-opted Marxist-Leninist ideals, fashioning a communist government that initially signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939 (leading to their combined takeover of Poland) but then joined the Allied forces and helped end World War II. The post-war phase saw the development of nuclear weapons and Russia’s emergence as a superpower, alongside major famine and a paranoid anti-semitism movement resulting in the systematic killing or imprisonment of doctors (suspected of attempting to kill Stalin and those in power).

Iannucci smartly hints at these “greatest hits” in the teasing banter between the members of Stalin’s inner circle, like Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). The comedy of horrors that binds these men feels like the shared anecdotes of a nerdy group of friends who have been together since they were kids. Imagine a version of “Stand By Me” or “It” where Stephen King’s cute outcasts were far more fiendish than the supernatural elements aligned against them.

Curiously though, what comes to the fore in the interactions of these men is a palpable sense of foreboding. As underlings, they make jokes at each other’s expenses and display a familiar pettiness as they seek to impress the boss because they know that there’s a ledger and scores to be settled at some point and they all want to make sure they will be able to stake a winning claim. And why not, since winning, at this stage means living long enough to write (or rewrite) history.

When Stalin keels over from a brain hemorrhage, he’s got a security detail standing outside his door who hear his collapse, but fear entering because any intrusion could mean exile or death. That sad, and perversely comic situation sets the stage for surreal absurdity that follows. Iannucci and his astute cadre of performers create an escalating series of bumbling set pieces capturing the halfwit fever-dream of venal men mixed with their lethal and unbridled ambition that goes a long way towards approximating a frightening version of reality.

Beyond the major faces of the inner circle, practically everyone is compromised in one way or another. Stalin’s son Vasily (Rupert Friend) is a vapid hothead and a raging alcoholic. His daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), as a woman, is nothing more than a pawn on the board that no one cares to remove. Even the principled musician Maria Veniaminovna Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) who puts on a brave front, penning the note that might have triggered Stalin’s hemorrhage in the first place, settles for a quick bribe, acquiescing to the desires of those pulling the strings.    

“The Death of Stalin” manages to capture and contain a multitude of perspectives and players, both large and small, in its frames, while never losing sight of the very serious historic notes. This is sketch comedy in the service of a complete and cohesive narrative. That the film achieves these aims without any meaningful concern for authenticity is fascinating, and quite possibly a mark of genius. Not once does anyone seem remotely burdened by thoughts of accuracy in terms of accents or mannerisms. With such performative ideals cast aside, Buscemi and company hone in on the truth as if it were a savory bone buried deep in hallowed ground, but their voracious hunger outweighs such lofty notions.

Fittingly, that sounds rather Stalinist.

Rating: R; Grade: A