THE DEATH OF STALIN B
Great Britain Canada France Belgium (106 mi) 2017 d: Armando Iannucci
It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little. —Raymond Chandler
In contrast with Aleksei German’s Russian version of Stalin’s death, portrayed in KHRUSTALYOV, MY CAR! (1998), a particularly dour film Russians found uproariously funny, this is an over-exaggerated and uneven film that perhaps tries too hard to be funny, but does capture the darkly disturbing paranoia emanating from every room, however it lacks the razor-sharp wit of its predecessor, In the Loop (2009), which linked Britain’s culpability to the disastrous George Bush war efforts in Iraq, searching in vain for those weapons of mass destruction, inappropriately linking a dictator that had nothing to do with the 9/11 terrorist attacks to suddenly rise to become public enemy Number One (Remember that deck of cards that listed Saddam’s cast of dangerous outlaws in increasing magnitude associated with their crimes?). Well, backtrack in time to the death of Russian despot Joseph Stalin in 1953, while increasing the magnitude of the crimes to the 20th century’s greatest mass murderer, having killed 20 million people, sending 18 million more to the gulags, while exiling another ten million. Constructed out of the framework of a French graphic comic book novel written by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, it’s not so much a comedy as a grotesque horror show, with death lists, interrogation and murder squads, and other unimaginable crimes kept secret for decades, where the stench of blood and madness were signs of rampant murder and an all-consuming elixir of absolute uncontrolled power. Driven by an obsession to eradicate the Jewish race in the Holocaust, Hitler’s systematic method of rounding up and transporting European Jews in trains directly to the door of extermination camps is well documented, leaving behind plenty of historical evidence, but Stalin’s crimes took place under cover of the night, where the public had no access to historical archives for decades, inaccessible so long as the Soviet Union existed. Shrouded in secrecy, documents destroyed, it’s hard to imagine, even today, just what took place behind closed doors, as the very act of rounding people out of their homes on such a massive scale just boggles the mind, with daily lists targeting citizens for torture, imprisonment, exile, or execution. The thin line between the living and the condemned grew exceedingly tenuous, as this film suggests, falling into the abyss of a no man’s land following the death of the nation’s sole authority, creating a vacuum of leadership and power that needed to be filled, giving room for exaggerated absurdist caricature, as this film reimagines how it all might have played out, using an existing historical reality of the Politburo’s surviving powerbrokers that is shockingly accurate in terms of the players involved and their ruthlessly ambitious motivations.
There’s nothing remotely Russian about the style of the film, which has more in common with Monty Python (including a leading role for Michael Palin) and the British style of humor, lampooning with sarcasm and parody, resorting to slapstick and screwball comedy, with rapid-fire, assault-style dialogue, including non-stop profanity, occurring so fast and furious that many of the best lines are lost in the onslaught, where the survivors of Stalin’s ruling elite are mostly seen as a band of bumbling nitwits, quickly turning on one another as much out of habit as anything else, as that’s how they’ve each survived living under the shadow of Stalin’s reign of terror, getting rid of anyone that could possibly pose a threat. The enveloping tone of paranoia is established from the outset, providing a mythical moment in a country ruled by fear and murder, with citizens rounded up and shot on hearsay and rumor, where no one knew when their time had come. Not exactly as it happened, though veiled in truth, the introduction features pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), a Conservatory musician (a classmate of Dmitri Shostakovich), whose reputation was legendary, a devout Christian Orthodox who considered her music an expression of faith, wearing a cross while performing in defiance of state-imposed atheism, also pausing during concerts to read the poetry of blacklisted Russian writers. This caused many of her concerts to be cancelled or banned outright, where she was never allowed to travel out of the country. While actually occurring many years earlier, the film takes liberties and stages a Radio Moscow broadcasting of a live performance of Mozart, Maria Yudina plays Mozart Concerto No. 23 in A Major (2/3) - YouTube (7:30), receiving a call from none other than Stalin himself requesting an LP of the broadcast. As it was not recorded, the entire performance had to be repeated, causing great turmoil, including rousting another conductor out of bed, ironically taking place at the exact same time neighbors in the building are also being pulled away from their families by the police, forced to bring a new audience off the street, with the conductor working in his bath robe and pajamas. When the police picked up the record, Yudina slipped a note inside, but Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is initially seen telling jokes in a liquor-filled late-night meeting with several members of the Soviet Central Committee (the Politburo), including his groveling deputies, the weak-kneed sycophant Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the First Minister and parliamentary successor, also Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the relentlessly sadistic Security Marshall and head of the KGB secret police, the portly and bespectacled man in charge of the daily lists, Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi, affectionately known as Nicky), an inept joke-riddled plotter who is a savvy comedian in his own right (his wife maintains a master list of jokes), and an elder statesman Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), the Foreign Affairs Secretary who denounced his own wife. By the time Stalin retreats to his room, he finds the note, sort of a death wish, causing him to lose his breath, gag, and suffer a brain hemorrhage, falling comatose to the floor, where he unceremoniously lies in a puddle of his own urine throughout the night. The guards outside his door hear the noise but refuse to enter, discovered early the next day by servants bringing him morning refreshments.
What follows is a scurry of activity, as first Beria arrives, refusing to even look at the body, instead stealing secret files with dirt on his fellow ministers, and then the next, a display of shock and outrage and ineptitude, each one only adding to the confusion, where they’re afraid to examine the body, “If only we hadn’t put away all those highly competent doctors for treason,” eventually sending in a committee of doctors, none willing to make a pronouncement, believing it would be their own death sentence. While Stalin does miraculously recover for a brief moment, pointing ambiguously at a painting, where like charades, they all struggle to find the meaning, before dropping dead. The rest of the film is a surreal choreography of the feverish plotting that takes place, each with their own designs on power, though seemingly by idiots and buffoons, turning this into a farce and a charade, using humor to mask the gravity of the moment. Part of what’s immediately funny is the contrast between authoritarianism and this “Fractured Fairy Tale,” one boldly in control, defined by certainty and death, (“The Party never makes mistakes”), and the other spinning quickly out of control (“I’ve had nightmares that made more sense than this.”), with members pointing their accusatory finger at others, twisting and contorting the truth in every which way, each refusing to take the blame themselves. When politicians and citizens have been subdued into submission for decades, literally cowing in cowardice, it’s not like they suddenly develop a backbone. All are viewed as morally corrupt, though the overly cynical Buscemi as Khrushchev comes across as a Brooklyn wise-ass throughout, just as if he came from the mean streets of New York (which, of course, he did), where there is no attempt whatsoever to alter the natural dialects. Stalin speaks with a cockney accent, Beale as Beria is memorable for being the most contemptibly treacherous, a thug leading the abominable interrogations and executions, arresting and raping young female victims at will (sending them home with flowers the next day), a pedophile synonymous with evil, like a James Bond villain, though he speaks calmly like a British ambassador with perfect Shakespearean diction. They wheel in Stalin’s children, the completely paranoid Svetlana, (Andrea Riseborough), who fears plots and demons around every corner, and the slightly demented Vassily (Rupert Friend), who is like Peter O’Toole doused in vodka, inebriated beyond comprehension, spouting off orders like proclamations, all of which are routinely ignored. Together they put on a show of unanimity as Malenkov is paraded in front of the populace as the bold new puppet leader, but he’s afraid of his own shadow, and wears a corset, usually ending up as the butt of all jokes. It’s not until Field Marshall Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), a heavily decorated war hero, enters the fray with orders to set things straight does power return to a recognizable place in history, as the underestimated Khrushchev outsmarts them all, promising to stop the purges and executions and actually introduce reform, rising to the top, demoting all his opponents, getting them out of the way, but the snarky final shot says it all, as lurking just behind Khrushchev in a celebratory photograph, as if eyeing him, is a young Major General Leonid Brezhnev, who unseated Khrushchev to become the second longest Soviet ruler since Stalin. This overly fatalistic film embellishes the gloom and doom with wit and a smile while playing out Russian history like it’s a fait accompli.