Adapted from Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin graphic novel of the same name, ‘The Death of Stalin’ unfolds in the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death from a stroke in March 1953. Before the body is cold, members of the Politburo are rushing around in an attempt to seize power in a country suddenly in need of a new ruler. The main battle to be Stalin’s successor is between Moscow Party head Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and NKVD (secret police) chief Lavrenty Beria (Simon Russell Beale). These two men - the first effusive and subservient, the latter composed and brutal - must manipulate a supporting cast of fellow high-rankers, including Stalin’s helpless deputy Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), sheepish loyalist Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Stalin’s vaguely crazed children Svetlana and Vasily (Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend) and a truculent Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs).
Being raised in a post -Soviet country, it is always with mixed feelings that I watch a Western take on a subject I’ve puzzled over in academic contexts. And although it is satisfying to see it given the brash, big-screen treatment, I’m predisposed to revolt over minor details. For me, The Death of Stalin doesn’t just fall short when it comes to the kind of granular historical and cultural detail that I am looking for, this is a film fundamentally ill equipped to locate the comedy inherent to Stalinism, missing marks it doesn’t know it should be aiming for.
While there’s no real suspense involved (spoiler alert: Khrushchev wins), there’s plenty of material here for a black political farce. So what does Iannucci get so wrong? Firstly, this liberal critique of the historical falsification associated with Stalinism perpetuates several historical inaccuracies itself. At the time of Stalin’s death, Molotov had long been sacked and Zhukov demoted to the provinces; Beria’s downfall, which the film squeezes into a few days, took several months and was prompted in part by events in East Germany. Any historian of the USSR knows that there was verbal comedy in the ludicrous Stalinist doublespeak that defined the period from archives and memoirs, and that there was physical comedy in those ageing men’s puerile behaviour; Iannucci however chooses to focus on the shouty men in the room and their practiced English mannerisms, rather than actually engaging with the bureaucratic hilarity particular to Stalinism.
It’s not that the film is entirely without merit. Iannucci and co-writer Ian Martin are excellent comedy craftsmen, and this is a stellar cast. I enjoyed the grotesque eating, drinking and chest-bumping reminiscent of the politburo of pigs in Orwell’s Animal Farm. The use of English language is welcomed because it obscures the film’s highly specific historical context and works to emphasize that this is not a historical film, but a barbed political satire. The film is certainly provocative, encapsulating the political chaos that followed Stalin’s death. But sadly it is not as funny, nasty and relentless as some of Iannucci’s past work.
The very first subtitle tells us that by 1953, Stalin’s “great terror” — the ghastly purges of 1936-38 — has been going on for 20 years. This sets the stage for an overused depiction of political repression, which mainly seems to consist of Russell Beale’s Beria personally orchestrating shootings, taking time out only to rape young working girls. These inconsistencies can perhaps be justified in as much as they help focus the drama. However, Iannucci seems so determined to turn Beria into a nucleus of evil, an embodiment of the immoralities of the Stalinist state, that he completely misses the absurdity inherent to this system of abuse and privilege. Of course, Beria was an odious sadist, but as someone put it to me, you wouldn’t make a film of the George W. Bush years that featured Donald Rumsfeld personally waterboarding Guantanamo detainees.
Iannucci’s approach to satire is simply not transferable to something like Stalinism, because in losing himself in these reveries of dictatorship, he forgets to say anything about the actual mechanisms of power during the Soviet Era. What made ‘The Thick Of It’ so compelling was that it grasped the practical reality of Westminster: a series of exasperated bureaucrats alienated from the consequences of their decisions, caught up in the process of government. Similarly, the black comedy in Stalinism lies in the fact that faceless apparatchiki could so easily enact mass death: there is not enough banality in the film’s portrait of evil.
Why play up Beria’s alleged sexual violence without tackling such a grim subject seriously? Why not involve more Russians in the production of a film that could never get made in contemporary Russia? As a comedy, it fails the basic test of making what it puts onscreen funny. The raft of five-star reviews that have greeted The Death of Stalin seem to suggest that this is a masterpiece of western humour; but for whatever reason — lack of historical detail, unwillingness to depart from a proven comedy formula, spurious liberalism — the result is a tedious story about some awful men being awful to each other. Which is fine, but just maybe, if you want to show your concern for the crimes of Stalinism, you might make some effort to understand what it actually was. You’d find plenty to laugh and cry about.