The Death of Stalin
The Death of Stalin 2017
Every so often I do a Twitter poll to help me decide what movie I should watch and review next. The poll I ran a couple weeks ago had this film in the lead, but it was checked out of the library last time I went there so it took me longer than I had planned to get around to watching it. For this movie and the next one I’m planning on watching I was able to go in almost completely blind. I only knew three things about this movie before pushing play on my DVD player: the title, that it was a comedy, and it was based on a graphic novel. The comic was written by Fabien Nury and drawn by Thierry Robin and originally published in French under the title La Mort de Staline, it’s loosely based on the real life events that happened during and shortly after Stalin’s death. And the movie itself extends that concept a little bit further by including some satirical comedy to shine a light on the absurdities of the situation despite how dark some of the situations are.
The Death of Stalin takes this dark place in history at the end of a dictator’s regime while his underlings have a battle of schemes to try and position themselves to help fill the vacuum of power with themselves. Or if not themselves, with someone favorable to them. There are really three primary characters working towards this. First off is Beria played by Simon Russel Beale. He’s portrayed as the most sadistic and overtly scheming of the bunch as he is seen with the aftermath of a torture victim, his sexual perversions are openly mentioned, and he is the first one to jump into action the moment Stalin is incapacitated. Second is Malenkov played by Jeffrey Tambor who ultimately takes up the leadership role in the eyes of the public though he is very submissive to the will of the rest of the council. And finally there’s Khrushchev played by Steve Buscemi who initially seems to be the most likable and amicable to the rest of the group of ministers but by the end of the movie is actually the most cunning and underhanded of them all.
One of the most interesting parts of this movie is how they draw out the comedy of the absurdly dark history. In an early scene, Stalin calls a radio station who is broadcasting a live orchestra performance and basically asks them to call back when the performance is over. He asks them for a recording of that performance, except for the fact that they hadn’t recorded it. So the radio producer has to scramble to try and keep the audience in their seats so that it won’t affect the acoustics and the applause will still be as loud in the end, and he has to get the orchestra to re-perform. Not only that, but the conductor has a bizarre accident and they have to quickly find a replacement. And while all this is going on, we also see Stalin and Beria’s secret police carrying out executions based on Stalin’s list of enemies. It’s this juxtaposition of this series of unsympathetic murders with this slapstick comedy of errors which is really the heart of the humor across the entire film.
There’s also the interesting choice that while this film is about Russian historical politics, practically none of the actors are actually Russian, nor do they speak with a Russian accent. And while there has been a lot of backlash against whitewashing in the face of diversity in Hollywood, in this case it’s a bit more forgivable as not only are all of the major roles replaced with actors of a different nationality, but it’s also generally replacing a Russian Caucasian with another Caucasian from a different country. And on top of that, there was likely some room for improvisation with the dialogue which comes off a lot easier if the actors aren’t distracted with an accent they’re not too practiced with. Even without taking into consideration the improv, even just the scripted moments become much more natural when the actors are using their natural accents. Or in the case of Jason Isaacs one that he was comfortable with.
Besides the comedy, there’s also a level of political intrigue right alongside the conversational comedy. Nearly all of the Council of Ministers are working on their own agendas and unless you are already well versed in Russian history, it’s unclear of which way things are going to go for everyone. Besides Beria’s overt political machinations and Khrushchev’s more cunning and underhanded moves, there’s also Michael Palin’s Molotov who is one of the most entertaining with his cordial flip-flops. His best scene is when the ministers are voting on their course of action of whether or not to pause and/or reverse the capture and execution of political criminals whose crimes are typically just dissent or even just suspected dissent. When it comes to his turn to speak on the vote he eloquently flips back and forth on the issue several times over the course of a couple minutes and it’s fantastic.
The biggest downside of this film is how dark it gets. There are plenty of deaths in this film and Beria’s death near the end is actually a little on the gruesome side. There are longer stretches where the comedy is absent and it’s just about the political double dealings and that’s where things get a little bogged down. But overall, there’s enough comedy to keep things light and while it’s not a fully accurate depiction of the historical events, it gets to the heart of the issues and generally keeps things light enough to stay interesting. On top of that, the performances by everyone are absolutely stellar. It’s worth a watch and I am curious to know how much of the inaccuracies come from the graphic novel, or if they came about through the filming of the movie instead. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.