In case the trailer didn’t already give it away, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a comedy. Its dialogue bristle with sharp, satirical thorns. It is at turns witty, goofy, absurdist and madcap. It is also like one of those works of art that, when you first look at them, seem to depict a rabbit or a beautiful young woman – but then you realise that you’re actually looking at a duck or an old crone, and once that realisation has set in, it’s difficult if not impossible to again see what you thought you saw at first. Once that moment has set in, The Death of Stalin becomes something much darker. The verbal humour remains, but it is revealed to be the poisonous icing on a meal that tastes of ashes and death.
To some extent, The Death of Stalin isn’t all that different from Iannucci’s other political satires, such as The Thick of It or In The Loop. (I haven’t seen Veep myself, though I’ve heard that it suffers from a distinct lack of Peter Capaldi, as do most things in life.) Its cast of characters are mostly politicians of the worst kind: self-serving, craven, two-faced and often not a little incompetent – but the ones that are competent are also the most frightening, in particular Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, the head of the Secret Police, played with a chilling combination of bonhomie, depravity and sadism by Simon Russell Beale. In particular due to him and his machinations, horror is always lurking right underneath the comedy.
Some of the film’s humour comes out of its characters’ inadequacy to the situation they find themselves in: they’re all in positions of power at the top of the Soviet hierarchy, but seem incapable either individually or collectively to make anything happen as they scramble for control. Some of the humour comes out of the absurdities of the Soviet system that these men have helped create. Since one of them is played by Michael Palin, it is difficult not to think of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, another satire of a totalitarian system, but where Brazil’s system is unfeelingly cruel, the Soviet Union depicted in The Death of Stalin was ruled by a petty, selfish bully, a wanton boy all to eager to kill those he regarded as little more than flies, and his possible replacements aren’t much better.
Which makes it surprising how effective the film is at making its audience laugh – depending on their tolerance for laughter that sticks in your throat, but more so for spending two hours with the kind of characters that’d be intolerable in real life. A handful of the side characters are more palatable than the main cast; it’s easy to feel sympathy and pity for those at the receiving end of the evils of the Stalinist system, and interestingly it is the female characters – Andrea Riseborough’s Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter, and Olga Kurylenko’s Maria Veniaminovna Yudina, a concert pianist critical of the dictator – that come away best due to their honesty and courage in the face of the apparatchiks. Steve Buscemi’s Khrushchev and his growing exasperation are surprisingly relatable too, which is reinforced by his character being the one who seems to recognise Beria’s monstrousness most clearly, though he only springs to action once his own life is on the line.
While one’s tolerance for spending a couple of hours with this gang of jokers is a matter of preference, The Death of Stalin does suffer somewhat from structural problems – or, perhaps more accurately, from a lack of narrative structure. Iannucci cut his teeth on short, episodic satire that didn’t need much in the way of narrative structure (pretty much every episode of The Thick of It follows the same broad template), and at times The Death of Stalin feels like binge watching an entire season of an Iannucci series. Individual scenes become interchangeable as the situation barely changes and the characters change even less. Only in the last half hour of the film does the plot kick into a higher gear, but before that it largely moves in circles – which fits the absurd ballet of deviousness and stupidity that the Politbureau enacts, but it feels like too little and too much at the same time. The short-form satire that Iannucci has proven his mastery of cannot just be extended to five, six times its length and work the exact same way. Even if the absurdist lack of getting anywhere, of running in place, fits the material, it still makes for a film that makes you feel its length – which doesn’t always work in its favour.
Nonetheless, The Death of Stalin is probably the funniest, bleakest, most effective comedy on the death of a dictator, and it is pretty high up on the list of political satire altogether. Its writing is sharp, several of its performances pitch-perfect (my own favourites being Palin, Buscemi and Russell Beale) – and the double-whammy of its final scene and end credits nearly sublime. At one point Palin’s Molotov comments on the farcical goings-on that “Stalin would be loving this.” We only have a faint idea what the current “warm and mighty bear” at the Kremlin thinks of the film (seeing how the film was banned in Russia, his reaction seems to lean towards a tentative “Njet”), but perhaps it’s not an entirely bad sign if autocrats dislike your satire so much that they ban it.