Director: Armando Iannucci
Writer: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, and Ian Martin; La Mort de Staline by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin
Cinematographer: Zac Nicholson
Producer: Yann Zenou, Laurent Zeitoun, Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, and Kevin Loader
by Jon Cvack
An old professor of mine who taught the first philosophy class I’ve ever taken inspired me to go to major in the subject. The class was Intro to Existentialism and one of the best assignments I experienced in college was taking the ideas we learned and applying them to a list of films the professor assembled, inspiring me to major in the subject. Years later, I came across the professor on Facebook. I believe his first message to me was “Woah” and although I was in my mid twenties or so, I still felt a deferential attitude toward the man who would enter into brilliant tangents about politics and state of the world, remaining calm and collected, speaking against the excesses of capitalism and neoliberalism. I was happy to show him my film Road to the Well (2016), which he said he enjoyed. A few months ago, he started a Facebook film appreciation page, inviting about eight or so other students and friends. The flavors are a bit obscure, often making me feel embarrassed over how little I’ve seen of 1920s silent German cinema. During one of the discussions, someone mentioned The Death of Stalin and without a second thought I knew I needed to see it as soon as possible.
Recently I read the biography "Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar" (2003) which, having a gross ignorance of Soviet history, the biography shed light on how terrifying the individual was; in which gross mistrust and paranoia prevented anyone from feeling safe. Over 20 million people died during Stalin’s Great Purge and the government was truly led by what oftentimes reads like children who are sick with power and drowning in wealth. I haven’t seen Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop (2009) since it came out, and while I’ve enjoyed the few episodes I’ve seen of "Veep" I’ve never dug too far into the series. Nevertheless, the idea of his voice combined with Stalin’s reign was fascinating.
The Death of Stalin takes place the moments before and after Stalin’s death, as he’s left with the remaining eight or so members of his cabinet, a couple of whom are about to be executed that night or later in the week. Kruschev (Steve Buscemi ), Lavrentiy Beria (Lavrentiy Beria), and Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and the various other cabinet members all scramble to position themselves most favorably in succession. The primary feud is between Beria and Kruschev, who attempt to gain the upper-hand through a game of wit.
The film opens at a concert where two radio operators received an order from Stalin to record the show, even though it’s about to end. For a bit I was thinking it was another smart and sharp brown comedy; not too light, but not that dark. The characters felt the same way; with Buscemi and Tambor feeling as such strange choices for such despicable characters that I was nervous the whole thing would never take the Soviet Union serious enough.
Near my house is a restaurant called Solidarity and it has a secret back room decorated in the hammer and sickle insignia across the walls. Anne Applebaum in her book "Gulag" (2003) mentions the hypocrisy on the left for refusing to acknowledge Stalin’s systematic murder of 40 million people; we excuse people displaying their memorabilia when they were collectively more murderous than the Nazis. The last thing we needed was a film to make light of Stalin's reign of terror and just as I was expecting it to head in that direction, it shifted, capturing how dark and horrible his rule was, with both Buscemi and Tambor fading into their characters unlike anything I’ve ever seen - either of their other work, or from any other more prominent actor. It’s one of the finest political satires I’ve ever seen.
The eight people comprise the governing committee after Stalin’s death. While Malenko serves as the face of the state, Lavrentiy Beria controls committee, forcing Kruschev to manage Stalin’s funeral while Beria institutes Kruschev's more liberal reforms; namely ending the Great Purge. Kruschev fights back by reopening the public train lines, allowing tens of thousands of citizens to come to the city and mourn, surprising the Soviet soldiers who shoot down 1500 of them. Malenkov is then urged by the rest of the committee to provide the final vote in removing Beria, who agrees only if there’s a trial.
So begins the most jarring scene of the film, in which Beria is rushed through a courtroom located in an old barn, sentenced within seconds, and in a terrifying POV, taken out to the courtyard and shot through the head.
It’s been awhile since I read the Stalin book, but what I most remember is how juvenile and paranoid the entire story was, providing endless sycophancy, lies, and betrayal amongst a bunch of men acting like teenagers, ruling the country with absolutely no regard for any life beyond their own. Combined with the mass killings, it’s difficult to comprehend unless you get the detailed account. The comparisons are clear. We can laugh at Donald Trump and the things he does and says; the trolling and disdain for what anyone thinks. Now imagine if he was willing to indiscriminately slaughter tens of millions of human lives. Nothing different about Trump personally; just this horrifying addition. That is just the beginning of what Stalin was like.
What the film does a fantastic job of capturing is that lust for power, and the utter corruption absolute power contains. In some ways, none of the men even had a choice, as by that point - with Molotov on the kill list - it’s only a matter of time before they would all get the bullet. The conclusions demonstrates the speed in which happens. One moment on top and only minutes later dead before you even hear the gunshot. It makes you think back to that silly opening scene, realizing that the lightheartedness was the entire point; helping to demonstrate the terror beneath the surface. It’s rare for a satire to take such a grim reversal and that’s why this might go down as the greatest since Dr. Strangelove (1964).
BELOW: Tambor's greatest role
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