‘Death of Stalin’ Review
Charlie Kenney | Wednesday, April 11, 2018
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was not a particularly endearing man. He oversaw mass genocides of minorities within the Soviet Union, engineered artificial famine against groups that opposed his rule, introduced a widely-contested program of forced collectivization and essentially brought the Cold War into being through his aggressive interactions with the capitalist West.
His legacy is one of atrocity after atrocity without much happiness or room for laughter in between. However, there is one thing that Stalin did to benefit millions of people and likely induce some laughter — he died.
Armando Iannucci’s recently released film “The Death of Stalin” exploits this sole moment of humor from Stalin’s reign of terror in a way both incredibly deliberate and surprisingly humorous.
Despite its title, the film doesn’t focus on the physical death of the Soviet leader for too long. But instead, it zeroes in on the much more serious implications of his death — who would succeed him.
This fight over succession dominates the film’s plot and the storyline gives way to most of the humor. Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) and Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) are the main contenders in the succession, but the film also includes swathes of other Russians who are looking out for their interests to be protected in a post-Stalinist Russia.
The plot is as it appears to be — historically nuanced and a bit erudite in its content. This, however, does not imply that a immense historical knowledge of the transitionary period of the mid 20th century Soviet Union is necessary to enjoy the film. Having knowledge of this period certainly enhances the comedy of the film, but it is by no means a prerequisite.
The film treats the audience, for the most part, as if they know nothing about the Soviet Union other than that Stalin wasn’t the nicest man. Each historical figure is given a proper introduction, the nuances and repercussions of the transition of power are explained and the state of the Soviet Union under Stalin is shown through a variety of means. The film is an AP Russian History crash course — easy to understand but with immense amounts of detail.
The approachability of the film, however, is not what makes it great. Rather it is the film’s humor and how it is woven into a history which, on the outside, seems to be anything but a topic to evoke laughter.
The film’s humor isn’t cheap, and it is never at the expense of historical accuracy. Stalin still dies from a heart attack, Beria is still executed towards the end of the film and Malenkov still assumes power at the end of the film.
Instead, some of the details of the event are exaggerated and poked-fun at in at in a way that maintains their historical integrity. It’s an over-zealous funeral planner, Stalin’s guards being too nervous to go check on him after his heart attack and humorous banter between the characters. No large historical details are changed, and in an age of incredibly successful alternate history films like “Inglorious Bastards” and “The Interview,” that is a noble feat in and of itself.
Yet, not everything is strict to the book. The characters in the film speak English in non-Russian accents, which is crucial humor to function. Mocking-Russian accents work in some circumstances, but in the film that Lannucci crafts, English and American accents capture the nuances of the script.
In saying all of this, “The Death of Stalin” is not a typical 2000s comedy. It doesn’t get its laughs with gags, crude humor, sexual tension or any other trope that has become a hallmark of a good, laugh-evoking comedy. It relies on attention to detail, clever historical exaggerations and stellar comedic acting — things that may not please every comedy-goer.
“The Death of Stalin,” is not a film that is out to please everyone. It’s a film for audiences that want to learn about the mid-century Soviet Union, that are willing to pay attention to detail for two hours straight and are willing to change their typical notion of what a comedy is.
It may be about a film about Joseph Stalin, but it’s a lot easier to like than he was.
Film: “The Death of Stalin”
Director: Armando Iannuci
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor
If you like: “Inglorious Basterds,” “Veep”