The Death of Stalin – film review

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?

5 thoughts on “The Death of Stalin – film review

  1. *sighs* I so wish any German cinemas would show this movie but those near me all have decided that British humour is not for us… I’ll have to hope it will eventually make it’s way to some streaming-platform or I’ll have to buy the DVD after all because I *really* want to see it after all I’ve heard about it.

    Stalin and comedy also makes me think of Hotel Lux, a German movie which I would firmly place in the ‘not that great’ category but it does have some memorable scenes: it’s about a German comedian who flees the Nazis and due to *~*hilarious*~* misunderstandings ends up in the USSR and mistaken for Stalin’s astrologer (I said: not that great) so he bullshits his way through it because the alternative would be…well not good.
    But of course, he’s German and doesn’t speak Russian so he needs a translator. But after a while, he’s picked up enough to talk to Stalin without the translator. Once he’s told him that the translator can’t stop screaming ‘YES! YES!’, jumping up and down, laughing and doing all the over-the-top ‘I am so happy’ things you see on old sitcoms. And well, at first I grinned at that scene because come on nobody shows happiness in such a ridiculous way but then it kind of hit me that this is a man who has very very good reasons to be very happy because nobody wants to be too close to Stalin and know about the secret conversations he has with his astrologer because it’s only a matter of time till Stalin decides that nobody should know his secrets.
    That comment got longer than planned and somehow tangential but I’m still impressed by how effective that one short scene was for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The scene sounds amazing… definitely watch “Death of Stalin” if you get a chance- I watched it in the UK, but I don’t think it has been released in Polish cinemas yet, as my Mum’s hasn’t been able to see it either…. fingers crossed they’ll do a European release soon…

      Liked by 1 person

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