The Death of Stalin is almost too dark to be considered a dark comedy: How does one laugh when bodies are dropping left and right and the action onscreen is an interpretation of real-life and deadly serious events?
But I repeat: Almost. Because the humor of Armando Iannucci's latest derives entirely from the fact that totalitarianism is inherently funny, is inherently insane, is inherently a joke. The refusal to allow any disagreement with the will of the leader is a recipe for hilarity, a formula for humor based on the idea that there's nothing funnier than a contradiction—and no contradiction is greater than that between reality and a cult of personality. The Death of Stalin is based on a sort of sick genius, one that derives its humor from the notion that disagreement is verboten despite the fact that disagreement is the most fundamental of human notions.
Iannucci illustrates early and often the insanity of Russia's predicament by depicting life under the rule of Josef Stalin, a man with the power to kill you for no reason other than he wants to. We open by cutting between a performance of classical music and Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) dining with his cronies, including Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Stalin's pals are filled with a sort of ever-present, low-level, high-maintenance dread. They have to keep track of who the regime has killed, and why, and what they have said each night to each other and to the USSR's head of state, mining the evening's conversations for clues about what might set Stalin off.
The musical performers, meanwhile, know only that they must do what they are told. When Andreyev (Paddy Considine) is informed that he must present a record of the night's performance to Stalin, he realizes he must present this recording to Stalin despite the fact that no such record exists.
All of this tension takes place amidst the backdrop of genuine terror. Beria dispenses lists of people to be disposed of, stating manner-of-factly that soldiers are to, for example, "shoot her before him, but [to] make sure he sees it." In a world such as this, is it any surprise that radio producers shanghai impoverished locals into watching redone performances of classical music in order to ensure that Uncle Joe isn't displeased?
Doublethink and its dissipation is the primary concern of The Death of Stalin. Beria understands better than most that he and his cronies have lived a lie in the shadow of a monster; yet, he also understands that he was the monster's right hand, the monster's teeth and tongue. Beria may be able to save himself, but only if he can dismantle the world that he has helped build.
The efforts to undercut Beria's double-dealing inform The Death of Stalin‘s humor, and Buscemi is perfectly cast as Khrushchev. No saint himself—and all-to-eager to adopt the mantle of reformer—Khrushchev is a typical Iannucci (Veep, In the Loop) sort, a bureaucrat who understands just how dangerous life can be absent the protection of bureaucracy. And Buscemi himself plays the role nicely: his Khrushchev is a man who understands that he exists at the whims of others, a man who knows he has to seize his moment, but only behind others who think they can lead.
I admire that Iannucci does not appear to have demanded anyone adopt an unnatural accent in this film: Buscemi speaks with a rattish American pitch; McLoughlin plays Stalin as a low-class British thug; Tambor seems to be doing Malenkov as a version of George Bluth. The jokes all come in the timing of it, the natural humorous rhythms of their speech. Jason Issacs deserves special praise for his smallish turn as Zhukhov, leader of the Russian Army, playing the military man as a hardcore bro, a swaggering jock who leans into the effort to maintain an orderly transition of power because, hey, why not.
Some have argued that Stalin and his purges are no laughing matter. I would suggest that some of those who lived through the USSR's terrors might disagree; track down a copy of Hammer and Tickle, a documentary about Soviet jokes, if you can find it. There is something revelatory about transporting the bureaucratic machinations featured in Iannucci's previous work to the gulag archipelago that was Soviet Russia. How could something like government-organized mass-murder take place? Well, how could it not, when you put all power in the hands of a paranoid madman and his fear-filled cronies?
Published under: Movie Reviews