OSTENSIBLY A WILD-EYED, CORROSIVE-CONVULSIVE SATIRE, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin (2017) comes off like George Orwell’s Animal Farm staged as a Comedy Central roast. Trading scabrous put-downs and obsequious equivocations about Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) and each other are a Who’s Who of grimly cackling reapers: Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), and Field Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). This crew of vile ideologues and heartless Communist party hacks jostle for position and power in the foreground, while catastrophic historical events flap in the distance like blood-soaked banners and show-trial balloons.
General Secretary Stalin’s stroke and lingering death is played as a glib, occluded travesty—lying in a puddle of his own urine for many hours because his staff was too frightened to go and check on him without orders. Yet one frustrating thing about the film is that the full circumstances of the Soviet premier’s demise and the practically medieval medical treatment he received were even more bizarre and outlandish than the conventionally slapstick treatment they receive here. Iannucci hasn’t wholly whitewashed history, but he’s heavily diluted it with stock characters and narrative condensations, reducing a reign (or reigns) of terror to office infighting and petty humiliations. (Substituting a bullet in the head or a one-way trip to a Gulag labor camp for a demotion or transfer, but with no commensurate sense of horror or dread.)
Here, the USSR of 1953 is being run like an autocratic movie studio or talent agency—with rampant sexual abuse and brown-nosing debasement de rigueur. Indeed, a disconcerting element of The Death of Stalin is its propensity to have the upper echelons of the Politburo drop showbiz allusions to Abbott and Costello, Judy Garland, and John Ford: As though Khrushchev and Zhukov spent more time reading Variety than Pravda. Understandably, Iannucci tries to splice the irreverent DNA of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Python alum Terry Gilliam’s Orwell-Lite Brazil (1985) into the invective-slinging, situation-room comedy of his beloved 2005–2012 BBC series The Thick of It or his even more successful ongoing HBO ensemble piece Veep. But equating deadly purges and police-state torture with the foul-tongued squabbling and figurative back-stabbing of endearingly misanthropic TV characters hardly does justice to the level of injustice, state violence, and atrocity Stalin and his associates specialized in.
Superimposing the ethos of squarely transgressive farce on the dictator’s inner circle, ruthless figures are played by old favorites: Steve Buscemi’s irascible Khrushchev carries little trace of the shoe-banging, “We will bury you”-threatening tyrant-in-waiting, while Jeffrey Tambor’s sad-sack Malenkov feels like a wan reprise of his feckless sidekick Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show (1992–1998). Michael Palin brings his ace timing and Python pedigree, but seems slightly adrift in a sea of mismatched accents, dubious conceits, and headstrong scenery munchers.
Iannucci’s direction never has a grasp of either facts or consequences, falling back on the caustic byplay and revilement that works for Veep, in lieu of any sense of context (it is supposed to be February in Moscow, yet there isn’t a speck of snow on the ground). The only snowstorm onscreen is a blizzard of shtick from this group of free agents who never manage to mesh as an ensemble. In the current issue of Film Comment, Lauren Kaminsky presents a first-class and far more sympathetic appraisal, saying the movie “works as a delirious historical mash-up that compiles sometimes independently factual details in utterly counterfactual ways. It can therefore convey nothing about causation and is largely apolitical...” but it is “riotously funny.” Even conceding that, what exactly is the point of a “largely apolitical” film about these monsters of the id(eology)? As Joshua Rubenstein’s unflinching 2016 book The Last Days of Stalin succinctly put it: “It is doubtful that a murderous gang ever exercised greater power in the course of modern history than Stalin and the men he had personally assembled.” Somehow that takes the air out of the whoopee cushion for me.
Iannucci’s most cavalier omission is the curt glossing over of the deranged campaign Stalin launched against the so-called “Doctors’ Plot,” an anti-Semitic purge-in-progress that used trumped-up claims that Jewish doctors were planning to poison the Soviet hierarchy as part of a Zionist-Imperialist conspiracy. In a beautiful stroke (pun intended) of irony, Stalin fell ill seven weeks after he’d had all the alleged medical plotters—the finest physicians in Moscow—rounded up and imprisoned. Such absurdity speaks volumes, but it has been muted here—perhaps to avoid dwelling on the specter of Jews being demonized and arrested when we can be chuckling at Drunk History-style antics and dithering histrionics.
Contrast this with the great authority-baiting Russian auteur Aleksei German’s Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998), which took the Doctors’ Plot and its architect’s death as oblique but hyper-visceral subjects. Or rather, as twin departure points into a madhouse world that felt like Orson Welles’s 1962 version of Kafka’s The Trial by way of Eraserhead (1977). It’s hardly fair to blame Iannucci for being incapable of making a movie on that level of sublime and pitiless dementia, but the gaping chasm between German’s film and this trifle indicates that The Death of Stalin needed to raise its aspirations considerably higher than mild middlebrow outrages to even have a shot at relevance.
Rubenstein’s volume also quotes Stalin’s daughter Svetlana—in a far cry from her pallid representation in this moviedescribing a deathbed episode worthy of Khrustalyov: “At what seemed like the very last moment he suddenly opened his eyes and cast a glance over everyone in the room. It was a terrible glance, insane or perhaps angry and full of the fear of death and the unfamiliar faces of the doctors bent over him. The glance swept over everyone in a second. Then something incomprehensible and awesome happened that to this day I can’t forget and don’t understand. He suddenly lifted his left hand as though he were pointing to something above and bringing down a curse on us all. The gesture was incomprehensible and full of menace, and no one could say to whom or at what it might be directed.”
Iannucci does have a scene vaguely suggested by this, minus all menace and doom: The bystander buffoons quarrel over what the mad autocrat was pointing at. Thus we are left stuck in Sitcom-istan, snug as a bourgeois bedbug in a comforter, wondering: Where have all the millions upon millions of corpses gone?
The Death of Stalin is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.