Presenting… Monty Python’s production of George Orwell’s 1984. Or damn close to it. So The Death of Stalin is akin to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, then? Well, sort of. (I definitely scribbled “Brazil” in my notes while watching.) But Brazil was fiction; clearly inspired by actual totalitarian regimes, but entirely fictional. Stalin, however, is based on terrible reality. Perhaps not since Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 satire The Great Dictator has a filmmaker taken on such awful personalities and events and attempted to make us laugh about it all. Except in 1940, the atrocious extent of Hitler’s crimes was not yet known. So has there ever been a film quite like this?
The audacity of writer-director Armando Iannucci is, therefore, astonishing. Even more miraculous is that Stalin works as a comedy. It’s outrageously funny in ways that sometimes make you feel like you shouldn’t be laughing, but you can’t stop. Perhaps if anyone could pull this off, it’s Iannucci, who has previously given us the television comedy of Veep and The Thick of It (which spawned the uproarious film In the Loop), both of which send up contemporary political shenanigans in, respectively, Washington DC and Whitehall. But, again: those are fictional. And comparatively light next to the dark, bleak maneuverings of Cold War–era Soviet muckety-mucks, men responsible for, among other things, mass murder of their own citizens.
Muckety-mucks, though. That’s why Stalin succeeds: without minimizing the despotic horrors these men were responsible for, Iannucci holds them up for ridicule, shows them off as terrified weasels jockeying for position, for personal gain, simultaneously puffed up with authority and too scared to do anything with it lest it enrage their boss, and cause them to catch a bullet in the brain. It’s the worst humanity can do… as junior high school with guns. (That’s depressing, but also a really insightful way to appreciate that people who do evil aren’t monsters, just regular people. Which is also scary as hell.) The whole opening chunk of Stalin covers how paralyzed into inaction the dictator’s inner circle is when they discover him lying facedown on the floor of his office, having had, apparently, a stroke. What if he dies? Worse: What if he lives, and is upset over how they did or did not react? And after he does die — not a spoiler: it’s in the title, as well as the history books — who gets to succeed him? This is a story in which, for long stretches, nothing is happening, and it’s nevertheless momentous.
Iannucci is working from the graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, so the gall is not all his. But the cheek to cast Steve Buscemi (Hotel Transylvania 2, Grown Ups 2) to play up his own weirdo-trickster onscreen persona as Nikita Khrushchev? My God; that’s all Iannucci’s. Or Jeffrey Tambor (The Accountant, Trolls) as Georgy Malenkov, a close associate of Stalin’s, the man who carried out Stalin’s political purges? There’s almost something Dick Shawn–as–Hitler in Springtime for Hitler in Tambor’s foppish fastidiousness. Or Jason Isaacs (A Cure for Wellness, Fury) giving military honcho Georgy Zhukov an over-the-top Yorkshire accent and a bumptious sense of humor?That is pure Monty Python, and it’s brilliantly funny. There’s even an actual Python here: Michael Palin (Absolutely Anything, Arthur Christmas) as diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov. (Ironically, Palin plays it pretty straight.)
Above all, it is the absurdity of totalitarianism that is mocked, that one man could instill such terror in so many people, and often over such petty issues. Here we see Stalin, in his last public act before his stroke, ordering a recording of a Mozart concert he’s just listened to live on the radio, and the reaction in the studio is both perfectly reasonable and petrifyingly outrageous: they’ll just perform it again and record it. Except the conductor is so panicked that he passes out, and the revolutionary-minded star pianist (Olga Kurylenko: A Perfect Day, The Water Diviner) flat-out refuses. Oh, and half the audience has already left. How Paddy Considine’s (The Girl with All the Gifts, Miss You Already) producer, Comrade Andryev, rustles up a new conductor becomes a nervewracking illustration of the capriciousness of fate under such rule, of the stress of awaiting that ominous late-night knock on the door. The practicality with which Andryev pulls the whole thing off is a bitterly comic testament to how people survived such everyday tyranny.
It’s so tempting, with a film like this, to try to connect it to the current deplorable state of politics, which includes a frightening swing to the far right. I wish it were easier to dismiss such a temptation. But with a capricious narcissist in the White House and, just yesterday, a British MP demanding that universities turn over the names of professors lecturing on Brexit, and what they’re teaching, it’s not easy at all. Better laugh while we can.