The Death of Stalin
A film directed by Armando Iannucci, based on the comic book Death of Stalin, by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, reviewed by ROBERT HENDERSON
Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov – Deputy General Secretary
Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev – General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
Olga Kurylenko as Maria Yudina – pianist whose family has fallen foul of the Soviet regime
Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov – Foreign Minister
Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria – NKVD head
Paddy Considine as Comrade Andreyev – the head of the radio station
Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana Stalina – Stalin’s daughter
Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin – Stalin’s son
Jason Isaacs as Marshall Georgy Zhukov – the leader of the Red Army
Adrian Mcloughlin as Joseph Stalin
Paul Whitehouse as Anastas Mikoyan – Vice-Premier of the Council of Ministers
Paul Chahidi as Nikolai Bulganin – deputy premier and minister of defence
Dermot Crowley as Lazar Kaganovich – Minister of Labour
Running time, 107 minutes
If an entire society can become a lunatic asylum, Stalin’s Russia was surely that society. Imagine a world in which the present is at the forefront of your mind all the time. No one is safe. The most slavish devotion to the party line and to Comrade Stalin does not guarantee your safety for the party line might change from day to day or an informer tell a lie about you or simply recount an unguarded remark that you made. If a person says as little as possible, that might be taken as a sign that they are secretly disloyal; if they make a great display of loyalty it could be interpreted as a subterfuge to disguise their revisionist or worse their counter-revolutionary, true self. Being a senior member of the Party does not make someone safe. Few senior Bolsheviks from the revolutionary days died in old age. It was a madhouse in which rationality and consistency were dangerous traits. Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon captures the general atmosphere of the time and place.
It is important to take this historical reality on board before seeing the film because there is much in it which would otherwise seem absurd. The reality of Russia under Stalin’s rule was every bit as chaotic as the film’s depiction of it. Paranoia was the norm and it was never more fevered than in the last years of Stalin’s life.
The Death of Stalin is both funny and sinister. It is tragi-comedy with the emphasis heavily on the comedy. Imagine The lives of others with jokes. The all pervasive fear is brought home as the film opens. A Mozart recital is being broadcast by Radio Moscow. The performance ends and the head of the radio station (Paddy Considine) has a call from Comrade Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) who requests a recording of the performance. But the recital has not been recorded and panic breaks out as Considine frenziedly sets about arranging for the concert to be performed again, despite the fact that many of the audience have left and that the pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), a woman with a grudge against Stalin because of what has happened to her family, is reluctant to perform a second time. The conductor faints and injures himself so seriously that he cannot conduct the second recital and a new conductor has to be hurriedly found from those who have just been sentenced to the Gulag or worse. Superficially, this is Keystone Cops but the palpable fear turns the scene serious.
Stalin receives the recording but a note from Maria Yudina has been slipped into the record sleeve, lambasting Stalin for what he has done to the country. Stalin laughs but this brings on a brain haemorrhage which renders him speechless and immobile. Those close to Stalin call for the best doctors, from motives which include fear that he may recover and they be found wanting in getting him medical help if they just leave him to die, fear of what will follow if he dies or in the case of his housekeeper genuine concern for him. But there is a problem: because of the so-called doctors plot all the best doctors have been executed, sent to the Gulag or exiled. A few of the disgraced doctors are hurriedly brought back to Moscow but Stalin dies. Then the Central Committee members begin to manoeuvre either for power themselves or simply to keep themselves safe.
It is rare when a film with a decent sized cast has no duds. This is one of the exceptions. It has one of the great film monsters in the shape of the head of the NKVD Lavrentiy Beria (Philip Russell Beale), probably the most feared man in Russia after Stalin. Beale is a compelling actor and here he has a coach and four to drive as hard as he wants in the villain stakes. Looking like a cross between Mr Toad and Humpty Dumpty, he dominates the film. Throughout, he is a manipulator moving from one senior member of the Central Committee to another, his mere presence being a threat. His scheme is to use Malenkov as a shield behind which he can pitch for ultimate power himself.
Eventually, Beria overreaches himself by becoming too directly threatening and suffers the same arbitrary injustice he has meted out to others. The real Beria was an especially nasty piece of work. Sadists with real power are bad news and Beria was one of the worst. Not only did he have people killed without conscience, he liked to torture them mentally and physically. If a husband and wife were to be shot, Beria would ensure that the wife was shot first in front of the husband. Beria also had an appetite for rape which he indulged by taking wives and daughters of “factionalists”, “revisionists, “counter revolutionaries”, or any other woman who took his fancy and could be arrested as an enemy of the state or otherwise manipulated.
Steve Busceni as Krushchev has the meatiest part after that of Beria and he carries it off well, as a man who if seriously tainted by the horrors of Stalin’s time but is more realistic about the realities of human nature than most of those who served and survived Stalin. He acts with the Minister of Labour Lazar Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley) to thwart Betria, most notably by countermanding Beria’s orders that trains shall not ruin to Moscow and that the Red Army be kept in barracks leaving the NKVD to control the streets.
Michael Palin is a marvellous Molotov, the great Soviet survivor who outlasted the purges of the 1930s and died at the fag end of Soviet Rule aged ninety-six, and who so completely bought into the need to be subordinate that he pathetically applauds the imprisonment of his wife as being the “right thing”. He is a man to whom things happen, a leaf blown in the wind. Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov is a nonentity who nonetheless has delusions of authority because he is the Deputy First Secretary and thus legally, if one could use such a term about the Soviet Union, Stalin’s successor.
Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana Stalina – Stalin’s daughter – manages to be both paranoid and strangely innocent; Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin – Stalin’s son – is a boorish, drunken incompetent lacking any distinction other than being Stalin’s son.
Isaacs’ Marshall Zhukhov (the head of the Soviet army) is a splendidly swaggering absurdity with his torso covered more by medals than the cloth of his uniform and who announces his presence with “Right, what’s a war hero got to do to get some lubrication around here?” But the bombastic Zhukhov is the key to preventing Beria from gaining power because it is only when he agrees to back the overthrow of Beria (providing all the other members of the Central Committee agree) that the act can take place.
The moment which got the biggest laugh from the cinema audience was a wind up of Krushchev by Marshall Zhukov. They are having a private conversation and Krushchev suggests that Zhukov should join him and other Soviet leaders in a bid to seize power and do for Beria. Zhukov responds “I’m going to have to report this conversation, threatening to do harm or obstruct any member of the Presidium in the process of…” Krushchev looks terrified until Zhukov bursts out laughing and says with delight “look at your fucking face!” But there are plenty of other genuinely funny moments including the chaos of the organisation of Stalin’s funeral which Beria has manoeuvred Khrushchev into organising with the intention of neutralising him while Beria attempts to seize power.
This is the film that I most enjoyed in 2017. Don’t miss it.
ROBERT HENDERSON is QR’s film critic