The following three actors made me re-watch Armando Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin (2017):
Steve Buscemi (plays a clumsy and wily Nikita Khrushchev)
Simon Russell Beale (plays the infamous Lavrenity Beria)
Jason Michael Isaacs (is swashbuckling Marshal Zhukov)
I wanted to see how fast Buscemi (Khrushchev) transforms himself into a leader of the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin. I wanted to savour how he and Marshal Zukhov arrange a coup to dispose of Beale (Beria). Yes, Beale as Beria is that plump cynical cockroach you want to crush – and he is crushed in the end. This movie is about his downfall as much as it is about the fate of Soviet leaders after the death of Stalin.
Adapted from Fabien Nury and Theirry Robin’s La Morte De Staline, Ianucci’s slapstick black humour The Death of Stalin builds a world where a medieval Satan would love staycationing. Ianucci’s adaptation is funnier than the graphic novel, hence more horrifying. This is a world of low-level micro-spying. Here dread kills you even before you recognize yourself as dead. Here Soviet leaders pole dance for Stalin, but they are at each other’s throats when the leader drops dead listening to Mozart in his office.
Before Stalin dies in the movie, he fills us with dread. A Mozart concert has to be re-recorded because Stalin wants to listen to it. To his horror, the director of Radio Moscow, supervising the live concert, discovers that the broadcast is not being recorded. He imprisons whatever is left of the audience and forces them to applaud. The hall is filled with random people from the street. The principle conductor falls unconscious fearing Stalin’s retribution. Now, the director has to wake up a new conductor from sleep who arrives in his night gown to conduct the concert. The concert is re-recorded and the disk sent to Stalin with a note pushed inside the cover by an angry lady pianist. The note criticizes Stalin for ruining Russia. Stalin has a heart attack reading the note. He drops on his carpet and stays that way in a pool of piss till the maid discovers her next morning.
The first to arrive in Stalin’s dacha is Beria who was relishing his time in torture chamber. The film takes off from here to a series of episodes when the leaders scheme against each other. Finally, with Marshal Zukhov’s help, they corner Beria, set up a Kangaroo court, accuse him of raping minor girls, shoot him and burn his body.
The tragedy in the movie is Senecan. Bodies fall whenever Beria wants bodies to fall. People are killed when they march to see Stalin’s dead body. Retribution is what drives the leaders to live. Poetic justice is meted out with blood.
The comedy in this movie is Kafkaesque. It is absurd, dark and evil.
Beyond the humour, what carries the film is Ianucci’s choice of dialogues, costumes and make-up. Ianucci makes sure that we are watching a well-crafted costume drama. Ianucci’s Georgy Malenkov, General Secretary of the Communist Part of Soviet Union, is so obsessed with his dress and cosmetics that Zukhov snaps at him: “Did Coco Chanel take a shit on your head?” When Beria makes fun of dangling threads from Georgy Malenkov’s corset, which he wears inside his impeccable suit, we know how much of Soviet world is about keeping up appearances. Malenkov’s vanity will repeatedly draw you to this narrative of show and pomp that hides the violence of the Soviet world.
Don’t confuse this movie as a proper commentary on Soviet history. Neither should you confuse it with actual events in Russian history, which must have been much more complicated than this cinema. There are various impressions about the Soviet world, and Ianucci’s is just one of those. My impression of Soviet life, at least what I grew up with, is based on a series of engaging Vostok books for children. For a large number of people who once looked up to Russia as a political ideal, Soviet films and literature provided uplifting entertainment.
Mind you, several countries including Russia have banned the movie for portraying their leaders disrespectfully.