The Death of Stalin (2017)
Written by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows, and Fabien Nury
Directed by Armando Iannucci
In 1953 Moscow, General Secretary Josef Stalin is riding high. He is in the midst of The Great Terror, a purging of intellectuals and dissidents he suspects of being disloyal not just to the Communist Party but to himself. Aiding him in these exploits is head of the NKVD Lavrentiy Beria, Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov, local Moscow party leader Nikita Khrushchev, and Foreign Secretary Vyacheslav Molotov. One night while listening to a performance of Mozart on Radio Moscow while writing up a new list of citizens to be abducted and tortured, Stalin phones the station and demands a recording of the performance. When he receives the pressing later that night a note inside from the pianist rails against him as the cause of her family’s deaths. He has a sudden aneurysm and is found on death’s doorstep the next morning. What ensues in the backstage machinations of his corrupt cabinet of officials. They jockey and scheme, all trying to be the one person who comes out on top during this power vacuum.
Despite what this film sounds like, possibly a dour dramatic affair, it is a hilarious dialogue driven comedy. This is all due in part to the fantastic direction and writing of Armando Iannucci. If you aren’t familiar with Iannucci, he is best known for his political satire series on the BBC The Thick of It which had a follow-up feature film, In The Loop. His next big project was creating HBO’s Veep, my current favorite comedy series on television. The way he writes political figures is both humorous but also unflinchingly and realistically vile. My most significant compliment to Veep is that he never reveals what parties which characters are in, but manages to make them all feel like the insipid narcissists we all believe they are.
In The Death of Stalin, the starkest stylistic choice is to have no one speaking Russian or speaking English with a Russian accent. The British actors speak with their accent and the Americans with there’s. This also the dialogue to not come across as performed but looser, more conversational. That is a trademark as well of Iannucci, the casual nature of speech. The result of this is that our primary players come across as entirely amoral and the truth of their belief in “the party” is revealed. They spout the rhetoric you are expected to say when speaking to the public to keep up a false narrative. Behind closed doors they have no respect for each other or the leader they heap platitudes on before the ordinary people.
Iannucci gently directs the story into much darker waters by the end. Alluded to throughout the picture are the masochist sexual proclivities of Beria. He is in charge of the NKVD and as a result has a warehouse full of kidnapped people to harm and molest. It’s widely known he also has a proclivity for young girls. This is not in the forefront for the majority of the film, always a background detail. In the movie’s climax though all of the characters who have always known this about him, they suddenly use it in the setting of a kangaroo court. It is not that they have developed any moral sense, but it is that they see Beria as a genuine threat to their own avenues of power in the system. He must be eliminated so they may secure a higher ranking on the ladder.
Yes, the movie is about the death of Josef Stalin and the subsequent backstabbing that followed. But Iannucci is not just interested in lampooning the now-defunct Soviet Union. His work on The Thick of It was a direct incendiary commentary on British politics of the post-9/11 era. Veep is a response to the growth of neoliberal ideology in American politics. The Death of Stalin appears to be a continuation of themes developed on both those television works. Iannucci believes power should be mocked to its face, that authority should be the first taken down by artists, and it should be done without mercy. The ceremonial veneration lauded onto the world’s leaders is vacuous and laughable. Instead, the director reminds us even the most enshrined figures of history are fallible humans, inclined to indulge their vices rather than their virtues.