The Death of Stalin (2017)

*. The Death of Stalin is a movie I admire. Not so much for its achievements, though I appreciate these, but for its boldness. And not political boldness, since I don’t think it is daring in its politics. I mean its bold creative choices.
*. Foremost among these is doing Stalinism as comedy. That wasn’t there, at least to this extent, in the source material, a French graphic novel by Fabien Nury (writer) and Thierry Robin (artist). It’s something director Armando Iannucci, whose background is political satire, brought to the table.
*. Furthermore, Iannucci manages just the right register for the humour. He didn’t want the cast to play the material as comedy, but more-or-less straight. The absurdity and black comedy was all there already. It’s interesting to see how all the deleted scenes included with the DVD go just over the line. They’re too funny in an obvious way. They could have been left in (they don’t amount to much additional material) but they’d upset the balance.
*. I think the same reasoning lies behind a couple of surprising cuts from the novel. Beria finding out that Stalin is reviving is a natural comic reaction shot, but it’s left out here, as is the mess of Stalin’s autopsy. Would such moments have been too obvious? Too loud?
*. A good example of the film’s quiet and understated sense of humour plays out in the struggle between Stalin’s son Vasily (Rupert Friend) and a guard for the guard’s pistol. There’s no music, nobody says anything, and we just watch, along with everyone else in the room, as the two go at it, pointlessly. Finally everyone has had enough, and it’s as though the director calls “Cut!” It’s a little scene that does nothing to draw attention to itself, but I thought it was great. Funny, and in a fresh way.
*. Historically accurate? I think it depends on what you mean. The authors of the graphic novel were inspired by real events, but considered their work to be fiction. Nevertheless, they also asserted that the truth was far crazier than anything they could have come up with.
*. Any work of art based on true events at least aspires to get at some kind of truth behind those events. For Iannucci that truth was “what it must have felt like at the time.” He wanted to capture that mixture of absurdity and anxiety that characterized Stalin’s regime: perhaps not the whole truth about it but one part of that truth. I feel like he succeeded, and I think it took this kind of approach to achieve that goal.
*. Put another way, Martin Amis wrote a book titled Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million that came out in 2002 where he struggled, unsuccessfully I think, to understand the grim gallows-humour of Stalinism (why do we laugh at Uncle Joe and his Terrors but not at Hitler and the Nazis?). I didn’t care for the book much, perhaps because it was so pleadingly earnest. It seems to me that Iannucci cuts to the heart of the same matter more effectively taking the route he does.

*. Another creative choice that works is letting the actors speak in their native voices. I couldn’t imagine this movie with everyone doing fake Russian accents. Instead Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is a cockney Georgian, Simon Beale and Michael Palin (Beria and Molotov) are establishment Brits, Jason Isaacs is a bluff, northern Zhukov, Jeffrey Tambor is the hushed and doughy Malenkov, and Steve Buscemi is Steve Buscemi, surprisingly plausible as the peasant Khrushchev. It’s a great cast, and everyone does their bit, with Beale (who I only knew as Falstaff) leading the way. Perhaps Tambor overplays his part somewhat, but otherwise this is a great ensemble.
*. Given what was happening in the U.S. at the time there was a tendency to find some contemporary political commentary in it as well. I don’t think this works, though one does think of the den of vipers more than a team of rivals. In any event, such analogies probably miss the point, which I think is a more basic or universal one about power, and how it corrupts not just those who wield it but the entire social fabric. Totalitarianism leads to a total system failure, a political disorder that is both horrifying and makes no sense. But all politics, removed far enough from reality, turns into such a mad circus. That seems to me to be the lesson to draw for our own day.

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