Lying, back-stabbing, manipulating and even betraying your associates to gain power: These are common practices in many political circles. Despite their occasionally grim overtones, such behavior can also be a source of savage political satire, as Armando Iannucci demonstrates in his latest film, The Death of Stalin.
Iannucci has long reveled in exposing the excesses of political power in film (In the Loop) and in TV series (The Thick of It and Veep). Here he turns to historical events, giving the gleeful vulgarity and all-around reprehensibility that marked his earlier characters a deeper and darker resonance. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the film has been banned in Russia. Too soon?)
Based on a non-comedic French comic-book adaptation of historical events, The Death of Stalin is set in Moscow in early 1953, when the 72-year-old Stalin died after roughly 30 years of control over the Soviet Union. With the seat of power suddenly vacant, those closest in command — most of whom had lived in fear of becoming the next victim of the premier's ideological whims — connived and collaborated to find their new place in the Kremlin hierarchy.
In Iannucci's version, Stalin's death creates an uneasy bond, equal parts alliance and power struggle, between the four men closest to him, each of them fully aware of his own complacency in the regime's torture and mass arrests, and each fearful that a slip of the tongue could add his name to the list of victims. The ruthless head of the secret police, Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), swoops in first, quickly securing files from Stalin's office that will allow him to manipulate the others. Meanwhile, the politically savvy party leader Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) tries to counter Beria's plans for his own profit. Caught in the middle, the dull-witted Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is named Stalin's temporary replacement at Beria's insistence. Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) is an easily manipulated figure and a victim of Stalin's policies, and he tries to convince himself of his unequivocal loyalty. (After watching an order of execution being signed, he pipes up cheerily: Stalin would love this!)
Poking fun at the pretzel logic, knee-jerk ideology-shifting and nervous patriotism of Soviet bureaucrats is a staple of political satire nearly as old as the Revolution itself — think of the jovial Communists of 1939's Ninotchka — but Iannucci's version plays for grimmer laughs, more brutal than playful. Thanks to an unexpected but rewarding strategy of allowing his cast to retain their British and American accents, Khrushchev and his fellow schemers come off as barely competent hoods who just happen to have a foot in the door of a global superpower. They're reckless and inept, but their desperate grasping for control reflects the unsteady and inconsistent methods of the totalitarian state — which only makes them act more desperately. As Kruschev runs (literally) to Stalin's daughter Svetlana, hoping to enlist her support, he is asked: "How can you run and plot at the same time?"
For all of its dark humor and, I'm assuming, historical deviation, The Death of Stalin offersa compelling view of life under Stalinism and the extraordinary contrivances that keep a dictator (and his cronies) in control. Iannucci immerses us so deeply in the pageantry and empty grandeur of the Soviet elite (complete with a richly ambitious pseudo-Shostakovitchian score by Christopher Willis) that we almost feel the shifting sympathies and unstable social climate that fires the ambition in Khrushchev and reduces someone like Molotov to an unstable wreck. Kruschev and his crew are aware of the worst sins of the government, but still have a certain respect for its rigor, a kind of nostalgia for the rituals that kept everyone in their place.
Anyone with even a mild acquaintance with twentieth century history will know where The Death of Stalin and its wicked crew are headed. The brilliance of the film comes not in the form of narrative surprises but in the sheer exuberance of the writers and the cast and their willingness to throw themselves so uninhibitedly into such an odd, vulgar and fearless project. The cast is uniformly excellent, and while the frantic behavior of Buscemi and Beale dominates the film, it's Monty Python veteran Palin who offers the most complex and shaded performance. His best moment is a monologue during a procedural vote, his colleagues unsure with each new sentence exactly where his political sympathies lie. No match for the whirlwind of greed and deceit blowing around him, he's the film's broken moral compass.