The Death of Stalin is a film directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci. It is a very British film about a very Russian subject – and that is what you need to be prepared for going into the cinema.
It takes a special kind of mindset to see the comedy potential of the events unfolding just after Stalin’s death – and Ianucci’s definitely got it. Known for his scathing satirical portrayal of the British government in The Thick of It, Iannucci has created a black comedy that both terrifies and amuses. As if admitting to the artificiality of the whole project, Ianucci allows his cast to speak with their own natural accents – creating a British version of Communist Russia. And thank goodness for that! Not only am I not fond of fake foreign accents put on for the purposes of an American or a British film set somewhere in exotic Europe, but I think the difference in language in this case creates a kind of distance between the subject and the manner of its treatment that is very useful in the process of forging a black comedy out of potentially tragic events.
The drama plays out in Stalin’s intimate circle – in the power struggle between Lavrentyi Beria (played by Simon Russel Beale) and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). Beria was Stalin’s head of NKVD (the secret police), and Khrushchev was a member of the Central Committee. I think the movie stands firmly on Khrushchev’s side in the beginning of the film, only stepping back from in the second half. Then the veil is dropped and we see how many crimes the man who wore pyjamas under his suit on the day Stalin died is capable of committing in his pursuit of power.
What makes the whole experience so disconcerting is the humanity of it all – for these people we are laughing at on the screen have all too human weaknesses and preferences, they are ludicrous, they are weak – but historically speaking we know they were responsible for the deaths of thousands if not millions of people.
And it is the humanity of the comedy that, at least for me, points a finger to one of the many enduring mysteries of the success of totalitarian regimes: why did people obey those pathetic little creatures who were determined to hold on to power at all costs? How did they become so powerful that no one dared to stop them?