Movie Review: The Death of Stalin (2018)
I saw “Death of Stalin” in movie theaters last spring, didn’t laugh much but liked it well enough. I knew smart people were behind it, such as writer-director Armando Iannucci, who has given us “VEEP,” “In the Loop,” and “The Thick of It”—scorching political satires that produce shock and discomfort as much as laughter. Plus, look at the cast. My god.
So when I saw it on some Top 10/honorable mention lists at the end of the year, I thought I’d give it another go. Maybe I missed something.
There’s some truth to the equation: Comedy = Tragedy + Time.
Would “We lost 19 of our best guys” have been funny on 9/12? At the same time, the Bush era war comedy “In the Loop” was funny during the Bush era. We didn’t need time to turn that tragedy into comedy. Similarly, maybe in some cases time never helps. Some tragedies are just never funny.
A lot of the humor in “In the Loop,” for example, comes out of the word “unforeseeable.” As England is following the U.S. into a Mideast war, a bland government minister on a bland British radio show says the phrase “I think war is unforeseeable” and all hell breaks loose. In general, he’s right: War is unforeseeable, since so many factors go into its creation. On the other hand, this particular war is totally foreseeable, since an unnamed U.S. administration is hell-bent on having it. But you can’t say that. So you’re left with nothing. You’re left with lies and prevarication, which is where the humor is.
We get something similar athe beginning of “Death of Stalin.” A Moscow radio station is broadcasting a Mozart concerto when the national director receives a phone call. From Stalin. Who wants a recording. Except they’re not recording the concerto. So they have to play it again and record it before Stalin’s men arrive. Except the pianist, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), refuses. She lost brother and father to Stalin, despises him, won’t do anything that might give him pleasure. The others scramble. What about a new pianist? The conductor shakes his head: “Even Stalin,” he says, “would be able to tell the difference.” The others jump on this line—even Stalin?—and he scrambles to correct himself to the recording devices that might be listening until he faints outright. Now they need a new conductor, too.
In both situations, language is used to disguise truth. The ineffectual Brit official tries to backtrack on “unforeseeable” so he won’t fall from power, while the Russian conductor tries to erase “even” so he won’t be imprisoned, tortured or killed.
The former's funnier.
Being imprisoned, tortured or killed is on everyone’s mind in the U.S.S.R. in 1953. We first see Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) perusing the latest list with Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of the NKVD, the Soviet Union’s secret service:
Beria: Oh, I put Shteyman on the list, the writer. I know you like his work, but...
Stalin: No, leave him on.
Beria: And, uh ... Shteyman 2, his wife?
Stalin: On. [Eyes twinkling] They're a couple, ain’t they?
When Beria gives the list to his men, he add this: “Shoot her before him. Make sure he sees it.”
Not exactly a laugh line.
Some of the situations are funny. Stalin dies of a cerebral hemorrhage, for example, because everyone is terrified of him. The guards are too afraid to investigate the thump in his room so he lies on the carpet all night; the new chairman, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), is too wishy-washy to call a doctor because he has no backbone; and the doctors themselves are old, young or third-rate, because Stalin has eliminated the best: they’re dead or in gulags. And even then the doctors can hardly deliver the bad news. They do what Malenkov did: rely on the group to disperse potential blame: “Following a, uh, group assessment of Comrade Stalin, we’ve arrived at the unanimous conclusion, based on a collective finding...” Etc.
I will say, with a bit of pride, that the actors who elicited the most laughs from me were American: Tambor as Malenkov, and particularly Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev. When Malenkov dithers on calling the doctor until the Politburo convenes, saying they should wait until they’re quorate, Khrushchev responds, in that exasperated tone Buscemi has used throughout his career, “Quorate? The room is only 75% conscious!”
Another LOL line: Beria, already making his move, comforts Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), with a hug and these words: “Courage, little bird. We’re here for you.” Not to be outdone, Khrushchev steps forward. Awkwardly. “Most of all, we cry for you, little ... bird.” That pause. That slight disgust on Buscemi’s face that he has to say it. Killed me.
The scramble for power after Stalin’s death quickly becomes a scramble between Beria and Khrushchev. Everyone else is just too incompetent. But Beria is a horror show—a serial murderer, torturer and rapist—which means we root for Khrushchev. Yes. In “The Death of Stalin,” Nikita Khrushchev is the hero.
There is no one else, by the way; the people are awful, too. Sons give up fathers, friends deny friends, everyone is looking to blame someone else. Plus the propaganda worked: People still mourn for Stalin. He terrorized them and they arrive by the tens of thousands to mourn him. They say whatever needs to be said to survive. Or not survive:
Prisoner: Long Live Stalin!
Guard: Stalin’s Dead. Malenkov’s in charge.
Prisoner: Long live Malenk...
[shot in the head]
It’s worth seeing but don’t expect to laugh too much. Imagine a comedy out of “Animal Farm.” Like that.