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The Death of Stalin

(2017) *** 1/2 R
107 min. IFC Films. Director: Armando Iannucci. Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Paddy Considine.

/content/films/5103/1.jpgSetting a comedy circa Joseph Stalin’s murderous regime in the Soviet Union might not seem appropriate to many, but with The Death of Stalin, director Armando Iannucci isn’t afraid to put on a high-wire act. Iannucci looks to Stanley Kubrick’s deathless satire Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb as something of an urtext for Iannucci’s own output of political humor, which includes the film In the Loop and the HBO series Veep. These are tales of the venal, the selfish, and the desperate, lurking—when not preening—in the halls of power.

By nature of its touchy material, The Death of Stalin dances closer to the line of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 Nazi-immersed comedy To Be or Not to Be (and its 1983 remake with Mel Brooks). Working from the French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, Iannucci and co-writers David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows set the scene in the days preceding Stalin’s stroke, as he lords over the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1953 Moscow. His sycophantic underlings find themselves trapped in an endless loop of laughing at Stalin’s jokes and indulging his whims. They get used to watching their backs, a crucial skill in the days after Stalin’s collapse.

With Stalin’s body still lying on the floor of his office, his top power players immediately begin jockeying for power, as much to save their own skins as to pursue personal ambitions. In and out of Committee meetings, Lavrenti Beria (the great London stage actor Simon Russell Beale), head of the NKVD Security Forces that enforce Stalin’s daily kill list, squares off against 1st Secretary Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi) in an all-smiles cold war for the direction of the party. Meanwhile, in the public view, it’s Stalin’s deputy Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) who steps into Stalin’s shoes.

Beale’s vile Beria ups the stakes as the mortal threat to the others, including the pedantic Foreign Secretary Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin of Monty Python). Mostly though, we track Krushchev, who races to the office in pajamas when news of Stalin’s incapacitation reaches him, then sets to building support among his colleagues, head of the Army Field Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), and Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough)—while dodging Stalin’s volatile son Vasily (Rupert Friend). While thankfully taking some comedic liberties, The Death of Stalin roots itself in history, bringing to life nutty anecdotes about a concert that had to be performed twice in a row to please the dictator and Vasily’s attempt to troubleshoot the loss of the national ice hockey team in a plane crash.

With Iannucci, sometimes it’s the little stuff that gets the biggest laughs (like a soldier herding people to their deaths barely breaking stride to turn off a lamp—hey, power’s at a premium!), partly enabled by a technique that allows some improvising between the lines of a strong screenplay. Most compelling, though, is that central thread of paranoia, fear, and bitterness amongst the Committee members, which amounts to a hilarious riff on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that’s unafraid of laughs that catch in the throat once the implications set in. As a long-abused public streams through Stalin’s public funeral to pay homage, one can’t help but think, in summation, “You just can’t make this stuff up.”

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