In March 1953, the then-most successful mass-murderer in inhuman history was felled by a stroke on the bedroom floor of his dacha; he lay in his urine for hours until found, then finally died days later. Armando Iannucci’s terror-farce The Death of Stalin tags along for the power-vacuum trip as The Man of Steel’s politburo flunkeys stumble to cope with their fearful leader’s near-death state, then fumble the funeral preparations, and finally flail to take over. This dark-Red comedy’s greatest achievement is atmospheric—once a reign-storm of terror’s over, we witness through choked chuckles, the washout can be bloody, dark, and deep.
The farce can never trip lightly along because sheer dread and panic, amid all the Machiavellian manoeuvring, make for so many unclear steers, sudden veers, and grinding change-of-gears (Kaganovich, an Old Bolshevik, to Steve Buscemi’s Khrushchev: “How can you run and plot at the same time?”) It begins with the USSR’s leader demanding the record of a Mozart concerto. A Radio Moscow studio-manager then desperately reconvenes an orchestra—even commandeering a replacement conductor, there in his dressing-gown—because the broadcast performance hadn’t been recorded (for “The two greatest ears in the Soviet Union.”) So, imagine how scared Stalin-less associates and officials become when the great despot dies. Only the most deathly of them all, secret-police chief—and serial rapist—Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), comes wickedly alive. It’s as if his whole body glowers, even as his eyes gleam with the possibilities.
Iannucci takes some historical liberties, da, and super-compresses all the post-Stalin angling for power. And this isn’t as uproarious as his previous film, In the Loop. But the reverse-courses, doublespeak, and obfuscations are 1984-ish dystopia-politics at their bitter best. Scurrilous shots are fired (“fucking jellied eel”; “did Coco Chanel shit on your head?”) And, as we watch so many bodies drop, hope for Khrushchev to best the mesmerizingly malevolent Beria, or snicker at Stalin’s son, despairing over his inept hockey team (“When we play Hungary, are we allowed to use guns?”) the snow-covered treeline between years of tyrannical tragedy and one long, horrible joke is blasted away—a great Siberian implosion.
The Death of Stalin
Directed by Armando Iannucci