The international release of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin was attended by two fitting ironies.
The first was that Vladimir Putin’s Russia—after this month’s election result, it remains undoubtedly his—banned it outright on the grounds of its ‘extremism’. (Yelena Drapeko of the Duma’s culture committee said she had ‘never seen anything so disgusting in my life.’)
The second was that one its stars, Jeffrey Tambor, then the award-winning star of Amazon’s Transparent, was swept up by the #MeToo movement after being accused of inappropriate conduct by members of show’s production staff. He was quietly ‘disappeared’ from the poster for The Death of Stalin, in which he plays the dictator’s deputy, Georgy Malenkov, and replaced by Andrea Riseborough, who plays Stalin’s daughter Svetlana. The film’s producers claimed the Tambor version of the poster had only ever been intended for use in the UK, which seemed odd when Tambor is well-known in America, not only as Maura Pfefferman, but also as Arrested Development’s George Bluth Sr. and The Larry Sanders Show’s ‘Hey Now!’ Hank Kingsley, and when the poster featuring him had already appeared widely on that side of the pond. They might have done better to let the erasure stand as a kind of meta commentary on the period the film deals with, not to mention as a knowing wink to the ‘disappearances’ that characterise its end credits. As Michael Palin’s Molotov says as the film approaches its bloody climax: ‘Stalin would be loving this.’
These real-world parallels only stand to remind the viewer how relevant the scrabble for power that followed Stalin’s death in 1953 remains. (We’ll come to another one a little later.) But even without them, the film would still be Iannucci’s most accomplished work to date. In order to be sure that such a bold claim was accurate, I watched the film twice, on either side of the Iraq War comedy In the Loop, the writer-director’s feature-length spin-off of his television series The Thick of It, which introduced the world to Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker.
While it is true that The Death of Stalin lacks the wall-to-wall laughs of the earlier work, and never quite rises to the same level of inventive invective, it nevertheless goes further, and gets much, much darker, in its exploration of power and the violence that inevitably attends it. Indeed, if one were to criticise In the Loop, one could perhaps make the argument—as some used to make about treating George W. Bush as a well-meaning nincompoop whose greatest crime was torturing the language—that it depicted the lead-up to Iraq as a bumbling, essentially idiotic affair, rather than a cold-blooded and deliberately disingenuous one. The Death of Stalin is much harsher and more accurate in its treatment of the powerful. There are idiots in the room, to be sure—the eternally out-of-the-loop Malenkov, the true-believer Molotov—but there is nothing bumbling or well-meaning about anyone else.
This is not to say that The Death of Stalin is fundamentally different from Iannucci’s earlier comedies. All are political satires and all are run through with elements of farce. Iannucci’s predominant mode might best be summed up by a line panted by Dermot Crowley’s Lazar Kaganovich as he and Steve Buschemi’s Khrushchev run through a forest outside Stalin’s dacha: ‘How can you run and plot at the same time?’ Iannucci’s work is at its best when people are doing exactly that.
It is perhaps for this reason—to ratchet up the tension, to create a sense of madcap hardscrabble—that Iannucci telescopes the events that followed Stalin’s death, which in reality unfolded over several months, into a taut week or so. In an age in which it has become weirdly fashionable to write lazy op-eds for the Guardian or Forbes about what, say, The Crown gets wrong about history, The Death of Stalin is quite happy to be inaccurate. It’s funnier to have everyone talking in their own accents, funnier to have them running around like lunatics. The performers certainly appear to be enjoying themselves. Buschemi hasn’t been this funny in years, his Khrushchev a ladder-climbing lickspittle, always one step behind until the very end, so obsequious that he has wife write down the jokes Stalin laughed at over dinner, and, more importantly, those at which he didn’t, every night before bed. Jason Isaacs turns Red Army Commander-in-Chief Georgy Zhukov into a Yorkshire hard man and Rupert Friend plays Stalin’s son, Vasily, as a louche drunkard out of Waugh, or perhaps Wodehouse. But it’s Michael Palin’s Molotov—so blinded by true belief that when he’s told he was on Stalin’s kill list replies, ‘Oh, I must have wronged him so badly… What did I do?’—who turns in for me what is perhaps the funniest performance, recalling every half-delusional object of ridicule he’s ever played, from Pontius Pilate to A Fish Called Wanda’s Ken. Coincidentally, the only off-note is struck by Tambor, who never quite manages to render Malenkov’s reluctance to act, and his sound reasons for that reluctance, into something we should care about. That the man is a pushover is neither here nor there: the performance need not also be one so easily brushed aside.
The historical inaccuracies do more than merely open up a space for the slapstick and the silly. As Russia expert Dr Mark Galeotti notes in his review of the film, they also render the film more honest, more open with the audience about its own operations. ‘[M]uch pseudo-historical film is really just … in the myth-making business,’ Galeotti writes, ‘simply with more pretension and less honesty. … Fictionalising history is more honest [as] it makes no claims to an accuracy very few films really embody.’ Far more important than accuracy on the level of events—and this recalls the interminable argument that resurfaces every time some auteur of the theatre decides to rewrite Shakespeare or some other canonical playwright—is accuracy on the level of tone, what the great Dennis Denuto famously called ‘the vibe’. For all its Marxist madness—I’m talking about the brothers, of course—The Death of Stalin gets this just right.
Which brings us to Simon Russel Beale and his Oscar-worthy portrayal of NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria. Beale is the straight man to everyone else in the film, a chilling, cynical, toxic presence who from the very moment the dictator is declared ‘very ill’ begins to centralise power in the secret police. (Stalin is eventually declared dead by a few decrepit old crones and a couple of medical students, all the good doctors having been sent to the gulag after being accused of planning to, well, kill Stalin.) The laughs don’t exactly die whenever Beale is on the screen, but they are reduced to nervous giggles. Whether he’s ordering the deaths of ‘traitors’ (‘Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it’), joking about the use of rape in interrogations (‘I thank the Union for bringing me so many devoted wives who fuck like sewing machines’) or,most chillingly, letting someone know he’s onto them—watch for his scene with the pianist Marina Yudina (Olga Kurylenko)—Beale taps into and channels the real spirit of the regime and imbues in the viewer a sense of the uncertainty and bedrock dread that defined the times. Compared to Beale, with his quiet but unabashed sadism, the ‘villain’ of In the Loop—David Rasche’s bland neo-con functionary Linton Barwick—doesn’t stand a chance, even as he pushes the United States and its allies towards a ruinous war.
This is not to say that Beria’s comeuppance at the end of the film is any less shocking or repellent. I won’t spoil history for you, but it’s certainly the only moment I can think of in Iannucci’s work that dispenses with comedy altogether in favour of something genuinely disturbing. (Again one might criticise In the Loop for not including a moment in which the gravity of the decision to go to war, and what the audience, watching the film in 2009, already knows will happen as a result of it, is reflected upon.) The circuit-breaker comes quickly, with Kaganovich remarking that ‘it’s been a busy old week,’ but the momentary descent into savagery lingers like a pall.
For much of the film, Molotov warns that in trying to outflank Beria, Khrushchev is engaging in verboten ‘factionalism’. Of course, Molotov’s delusional. Politics is always factional. Indeed, authoritarian leaders often maintain their power precisely by ensuring that this is true. This is the other real-world parallel I alluded to earlier, a parallel that, in their advertising copy for the film, the producers appear to be referencing when they say that the film’s similarities to current events are entirely deliberate. Putin maintains his grip on power, not merely by locking up his opponents and maintaining strict control of the press, but also by balancing the demands of the Kremlin’s competing factions—the technocrats, the military, the security services and so on—and by ensuring that those divisions prohibit the rise of a challenger from within. Donald Trump’s White House, we are told, operates in much the same way. We know that it has long been split between its ‘populist’ and ‘globalist’ factions, with the former group of crazies only now beginning to vanquish the latter. The president himself is also well-known for playing his employees off one another, ensuring that any seething resentment is reserved, not for him, but for each other.
In the case of Trump, this matters because the stated goals of the ascendant faction are so damned awful, when not outright lunatic. In Putin’s case, one can imagine something far worse unfolding, not entirely unlike the end of the film. As bad as Putin is, he is also unfortunately the pin in the grenade. Indeed, it’s a shame that Russia’s banned the film. He might have learned something from it. Or even laughed.
Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent, critic and screenwriter.