It’s not like anyone who hasn’t seen The Producers or the clip of “Hitler on Ice” in History of the World, Part I will gasp at what Armando Iannucci has attempted in The Death of Stalin. The creator of Veep and In the Loop has already demonstrated a facile skill for staging the buffoonery and self-absorption of politicos. In this film, set in 1952, the inner circle of Joseph Stalin wrangles for power after the marshal/premier/general secretary is found collapsed, victim of a cerebral hemorrhage. To call The Death of Stalin a satire implies that the Soviet Union had elements worth preserving after calling attention to its absurdities; satire is intended as a corrective. On the evidence The Death of Stalin exists because there are more Hitler movies and Hitler jokes than Stalin ones, and we can’t have that.
At the height of the Cold War, after the horrors of collectivization, the Great Terror, and the Second World War, all Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) wants is a recording of a Mozart recital. Unfortunately for the Radio Moscow crew, no recording exists; thus begins a mad scramble to duplicate as much as possible what the piece sounded like as the clock ticks and the Savior of the Russian People awaits his vinyl copy. A disgusted Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) scrawls an angry note: she wishes Stalin dead. From her words to God’s, etc, for he collapses in the act of reading it. Bring in the Keystone Cops! First, the obese Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the terrifying head of the NKVD, fond of po-faced commands like, “Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it.” Although Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is nominally Stalin’s successor, he is a man whose generous face is frozen in fear; life is a series of double takes for Malenkov (“I’m exhausted – I can’t remember who’s alive and who isn’t,” he moans), hence Beria’s determination to make him his puppet.
But Moscow party chief Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) has other ideas. On hearing the news of Stalin’s death, he rushes over with coat thrown over pajamas, as if to demonstrate his loyalty. The rest of the Central Committee, familiar to students of Soviet history, divide along factions: Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley), Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse), and Bulganin (Paul Chahidi). Other competing concentrations of power include Stalin’s independent daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and, less so, her repulsive drunkard of a half-brother Vasily (Richard Friend), who insists on delivering their father’s eulogy over the objections of the apparatchiks. “You’re not even a person, you’re a testicle!” he shouts at one point, which assumes Committee members have balls. Meanwhile the unfortunate Molotov ((Michael Palin), the foreign secretary who once communed with FDR and Churchill, awaits the fate of his wife, imprisoned while the great man lived.
Fans of Veep will recognize the tone of insistent ridicule and Iannucci’s curious flattening effect: every actor and bot mot sounds interchangeable, a refugee of UK sketch comedy. How couldn’t it be with vets like Palin, Tambor, and Beale cast? Stalin calls someone “a cheeky bugger.” Beria says he wants something done “chop-chop.” No one uses patronymics. It’s amusing as far as it goes. When the rhythm threatens to atrophy, Iannucci resorts to the Howard Hawks playbook honed in His Girl Friday: maintain an atmosphere of constant motion, irrespective of the quality of the jokes (an air of franticness is better than Iannucci’s resorting to slo-mo, at any rate). This kind of goon show depends on the skill of the performers, and they don’t disappoint, with Beale a particular delight: the bigger a figure of fun Iannucci makes Beria, the more frightening he remains. Buscemi bring his usual intensely serious exasperation to Khrushchev, although he can’t dispel the impression that he’s playing Nikita Goldsmith from Altoona, Iowa. And nobody plays patsies like Jeffrey Tambor.
Picking on The Death of Stalin for historical inaccuracies lines one up with sticks-in-the-mud, but the movie errs in presenting our comrade as a bumbler. Stalin, writes his best recent biographer Stephen Kotkin, possessed “an acute political intelligence and bottomless personal resentment…the fools were the ones who took him for a fool.” To present the canny, curt operator who showered henchmen with unexpected flatteries would throw Iannnuci’s film out of whack. Better to have begun The Death of Stalin with the off-camera demise of the title character, then observe the Committee members’ beetle-like scuttle for power. The entrance of Marshall Zhukov gives Iannucci a chance to show the effect on these pathetic men of a icon – the hero of Stalingrad! – endowed with Stalin-like grandeur. Incensed by Beria’s order to keep the Soviet army from Moscow, Zhukov joins the Khrushchev faction. The very British Jason Isaacs plays Zhukov, delivering very British lines like, “I fucked Germany. I think I can take a flesh lump in a fuckin’ waistcoat.” Likewise the risk of revealing the extent of Beria’s pustulating evil: the man delighted in raping girls barely into their teens.
Such facts would stop the movie cold, and if there’s anything Iannucci beliesves in it’s momentum. As The Death of Stalin approaches its final act, patterns of history assert themselves: Beria meets an ignoble end; Malenkov performs his duly appointed turn; and Khrushchev waits his own turn as general secretary, which peaked and dissolved with the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time he and Malenkov were among the few Soviet leaders to live to a corpulent old age. This might be the grandest of jokes.