dir: Armando Iannucci
When someone tells you that times have changed and the world we live in is not like the world depicted in this movie, consider the fact that the Russian government threatened and sued cinemas in Russia for playing this goddamn movie, because the Ministry of Culture (as oxymoronic a phrase as has ever existed) felt it insulted the memory of one of history’s greatest monsters, and it might make Russian peoples feel bad about their appalling history.
Is it really a comedy? There are moments of humour in this flick, and it’s referred to as a comedy in every single review, but there really is very little to laugh about. The world it conjures up, of the Soviet Union in the 1950s, is a totalitarian hellscape where virtually everyone lives in terror of being hauled off and killed at a moment’s notice.
Even those close to the Big Man himself, who you’d think would feel a bit more secure, know that at the slightest inclination, for the most ludicrous reason, they or their families could be hauled off and shot, tortured or sent to Siberia for having incurred the displeasure of Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin). His ‘friends’, the other members of the Select Committee, have to monitor every single thing they say on the off chance that they refer to something or someone out of favour, or that they don’t bray loud enough like the donkeys they are at his jokes, that they could be doomed. It’s a bit of a toxic work environment, to put it in today’s terms.
I have had managers like that in the past. Capricious, aggressive, needy, completely lacking in empathy, willing to destroy everything just to get their way or prove a point. The major difference is, in my case the people in power didn’t condemn literally millions to death and torment just for a laugh or a lack thereof.
The basic premise that the film has to establish is not the period piece specifics, of aesthetics and such; it’s the horrifying and anti-human atmosphere of a hellish totalitarian state. However the flick is described, as satirical, as whatever else, it does not make light of the fact that most of the men shown here were monsters of the highest order, of the greatest magnitude, some of the worst that humanity had ever seen at the time. It’s hard, at many times, to see what humour there is in such horror.
The magnitude of the fear required by the people to maintain this unholy system is represented by a bizarre incident at film’s beginning, where a performance on the radio of live music has to be restaged and redone, with people being forced back into the theatre, with random people dragged in off the street to make up the numbers, all because the Supreme Leader wanted a recording of the performance, and none had been made. In such a state, for it to work, everyone, from the highest general to the lowliest peasant, has to be in perpetual fear for their lives.
And yet the way to represent such an atmosphere is not through brutality (of which there are plenty of scenes of people being led away for execution, or being shot on the spot), but through the sheer fucking bonkers absurdity of the lives these poor Russians must lead.
So Stalin’s loyal scumbags are all terrified of him, even if they’ve faithfully served him for decades and taken part in all his massacres, and hang out together for slumber parties and such, but when the steel titan begins to falter, they become piranhas trying to see how much of his power they can grasp before the dust settles.
Sure, The Death of Stalin is a literal title, but really it’s about the power struggle afterwards. If this Stalinist regime was held together by a cult of personality and a deep-seeded terror of incurring his displeasure, then one would presume that, upon his death, the whole thing would fall apart.
Oh silly naïve humanistic person! Have you learned nothing from watching awful people do awful things for many years and have other people constantly make justifications and excuses for them? Sure, Stalinism was based on a cult of personality, but, as this film goes to great lengths to represent, people are herd animals that can be made to go along with anything.
The real story of the film is not even really the jockeying for power upon his death, or the machinations behind the ambitions of Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) for the leadership of the Soviet Union. It’s about how personally awful, how personally amputating it has to be to triumph in their peculiar insane world.
The real essence of the story for me is something that happens about midway through the story when Beria is trying to consolidate his power base. One member of the central committee, being the guy the Molotov cocktail was named after (the great Michael Palin) has a wife, Polina (Diane Quick) who was declared an ‘enemy of the people’, meaning maybe she waggled an eyebrow or something at the wrong moment, and was sent away by Beria somewhere, much to no-one’s surprise. When Khrushchev and Molotov are discussing her, always wondering if their conversations are being recorded, they keep parroting these phrases about how terrible she was and how thoroughly they believe she was a traitor and a capitalist and a spy for the Americans, knowing full well that none of that noise is true in the slightest. They had to say all that when she was initially charged, presumably, because when you don’t denounce completely innocent people loudly enough when the Supreme Leader denounces them, you’re the one that ends up in Siberia or shot in the face. And yet even when Stalin’s gone, Molotov keeps saying what he thinks he should, what Stalin would want, even when he’s never going to be around again to judge him.
The programming under totalitarianism can be so complete, so all-consuming, that even seeing the wife he thought dead again, even knowing that he knows how completely innocent she was, he still can’t stop himself from condemning her all over again, or otherwise mentioning that they should continue doing and saying what Stalin should want even if he’s gone.
And this is after Molotov finds out that Stalin hated him and has put his name on “the list”, meaning he was scheduled for being shot like a dog in the morning. Yet so total is his programming, so unwavering his devotion…
It’s depressing to see how completely the human mind can be distorted, what habits of thinking can be instilled in it, and that’s not even taking into consideration the greater horrors on display here of the evil people are capable of. The vast, fundamental, stultifying lack of respect for human life by any and all of these people makes me hang my head in shame. That Khrushchev, for lack of a better term, is almost sorta kinda maybe-ish the good guy in all of this, is only because in comparison to Beria he seems like a reasonable human being. Whereas Beria…
Holy fucking shit. A monster worse than Stalin, if that is at all possible. I already knew much of what is implied or outright shown here about Beria, and I knew that, if the Stalinist-Soviet system was like a hell on earth, he went out of his way to out-sin the Devil himself.
Of course the problem there was that you didn’t survive in such a system without enthusiastically taking part in condemning countless people to death not for actual crimes, but to keep the masses in check, to consolidate power, to keep the boss happy. So even if Khrushchev himself didn’t do a tenth of what Beria did, he still brought misery to multitudes. But, yeah, go Team Khrushchev!
The main obstacles in his path are that 1) he looks like an old guy you wouldn’t offer a seat to on the bus, 2) he isn’t as much of a clear psychopath as Beria, 3) he’s not as smart or adept as Beria and 4) the ruthless monsters around him are cowards who only agree to do things if the group agrees. No-one wants to take a stand on anything, no matter how banal, and no-one has the balls to go against the group in any vote.
This, being a movie from the guy that brought Veep and The Thick of It and In the Loop into the world, is of course more about the absurdities and idiotic eccentricities of those with a modicum of power and how completely it warps human relationships. In this film it’s taken to the nth degree, because the people doing these things aren’t even trying to hide the fact that they’re monsters, because it’s acceptable in the world they live in.
In terms of performances, they’re mostly caricatures and comic grotesques (except for Beria, who is horrible and chilling, and generally not played for comic effect) everything you’d expect if you’ve seen an Iannucci film – venal, whiny, pathetic, vicious, bloviating idiots and almost at all times comically awkward dingleberries. The stand out is definitely Jason Isaacs who plays General Zhukov with the outsize swagger and braggadocio of a WWE wrestler, only without the subtlety. He looks and acts like how a hangover, insatiable hunger and an erection would look if they could take human form and stalk around, daring people to look at them funny.
If there is one character that’s seen sympathetically, perhaps, maybe, it’s Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) who probably shouldn’t trust anybody but then again who knows what happens to a dictator’s kids when the dictator dies? Everyone, especially Beria and Khrushchev keep telling her that she’ll be safe and nothing will happen to her or her demented alcoholic brother Vasily (Rupert Friend) who keeps screaming conspiracy theories at the top of his lungs while cursing out everyone around him. The funniest scene with him is also his introduction where he is screaming abuse at a hockey team, and then laments the crappy players now playing, who aren’t as good as the previous players who unfortunately died in a plane crash. He is told abruptly that there was no other team or plane crash, because Soviet planes do not crash, in one of the many examples of insane, contradictory contortions of thinking required in such a proletarian paradise.
It’s funny, I guess, but it’s also gutting. Something like this would be unwatchable if they did it straight, and plus the veneer of ‘comedy’ allows them to compress and mix together various events in such a way that would not be appropriate in a scholarly (as in, boring and serious) work. But something like this, with these pieces of shit, needs to be mocked, their sheer awfulness needs to be laughed at, to remind us of how absurd people in power are, but that them staying in power and getting away with all their bullshit requires docile and self-interested populations of great unwashed who happily go against their own interests and die for it anyway. Like the masses who desperately suffered under Stalin, who still loved him, who died in their thousands trying to get to the mad bastard’s funeral, in a final action of stupidity that probably would have delighted the wretched despot.
7 times I watch this kind of stuff, and compare it to current events, and I just can’t laugh out of 10
“I’ve had nightmares that made more sense than this” – a sad indictment of totalitarianism if I ever heard one – The Death of Stalin