Humor Blends With Tragedy In The Farcical 'Death of Stalin'

Mar 14, 2018
Originally published on March 19, 2018 8:13 am
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This is FRESH AIR. Armando Iannucci, who created the award-winning TV show "Veep," has made a satirical comedy about Joseph Stalin called "The Death Of Stalin." The film features British and American actors and is set at the time of Stalin's death amid the frenzy and power struggles that followed. Steve Buscemi stars as Nikita Khrushchev. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Armando Iannucci's "The Death Of Stalin" is an acid satire of the days in 1953 when the Soviet Union lost its totalitarian leader of three decades, and members of his inner circle argued, plotted and killed a lot of people while selecting a successor.

Don't expect much Russian flavor, though. The joke is that the characters order torture and mass murder in the accents of Cockney or American bureaucrats. They're prissy, pissy, peevish, potty-mouthed. Why is that a joke - because of the colossal disconnection between small-minded egotistical clowns and the large amount of horror they inflict thanks to their vast and unchecked power. The movie isn't funny haha like Iannucci's HBO series "Veep" or his British series "The Thick of It," which he turned into the gorgeously profane feature "In The Loop." This is "In The Loop" through the lens of George Orwell's "Animal Farm" or "1984." It's funny - oh, my God.

If the movie has a single theme, it's the disfiguring effects of terror on the simplest human interactions. Any statement, however trivial, can get you hauled off and shot. Before Stalin keels over from a stroke, the fear of his displeasure produces a kind of verbal slapstick in which his subordinates stammer and cast furtive glances at their leader and one another for clues to their status. Did Stalin laugh? Did Stalin frown?

It makes psychological and poetic sense that Stalin lies for 12 hours on his bedroom floor in soiled clothes because his men are too frightened to make a decision about what to do next. Plus, Moscow's competent doctors are either dead or in the Gulag. The bulk of "The Death Of Stalin" depicts the struggle for party chairmanship between Nikita Khrushchev, who most of us have heard of, and Lavrenti Beria, whom most of us haven't. Khrushchev is no saint but is played by a gray sputtering Steve Buscemi. He's rather lovable. He's St. Francis of Assisi next to Simon Russell Beale's bullying, thick-necked Beria who tortures prisoners with relish and sexually preys on young girls.

If you didn't know Khrushchev succeeded Stalin, you'd put the odds on Beria, who's more Machiavellian and ruthless and who has the ear of the weak-willed acting premier Malenkov played by Jeffrey Tambor. Beria does a brilliant job ensuring Khrushchev won't be doing any master planning by nominating him to micromanage Stalin's funeral.


SIMON RUSSELL BEALE: (As Lavrenti Beria) We need someone to take charge of the funeral.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What about Comrade Khrushchev?

STEVE BUSCEMI: (As Nikita Khrushchev) Where is this coming from?

BEALE: (As Lavrenti Beria) I formally propose Comrade Khrushchev be given the honor of organizing the funeral.

BUSCEMI: (As Nikita Khrushchev) Come on. I don't have any time to do that.

BEALE: (As Lavrenti Beria) Well, if I can do three things at once, you can at least do two.

BUSCEMI: (As Nikita Khrushchev) What the hell do I know about funerals?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You said you wanted to honor his legacy. You told me last night in the bathroom.

BEALE: (As Lavrenti Beria) All those in favor.

JEFFREY TAMBOR: (As Georgy Malenkov) All those in favor.

BUSCEMI: (As Nikita Khrushchev) No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Well, I think you'd be good, actually, you know.

BEALE: (As Lavrenti Beria) Passed unanimously.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Niki Khrushchev, funeral director. It suits you.

EDELSTEIN: Armando Iannucci has a genius for depicting the formality of statecraft side-by-side with the chaos of personality, fertile territory for a cast of brilliant forces from both sides of the Atlantic. Jeffrey Tambor's Malenkov is both glum and jumpy, feebly asserting authority while pitiably aware he's in over his head. He can't master the higher math of a system in which the same principle can be twisted to get you both celebrated or executed.

Michael Palin plays the foreign minister, Molotov of cocktail fame, with a grandfatherly gentleness that's in context very creepy. Plus, he carries echoes of the Orwellian black comedy "Brazil." Andrea Riseborough is Stalin's giddy daughter, whose life of privilege has made her weirdly oblivious to the realities of Soviet life. Paddy Considine kicks off the movie as a symphony orchestra manager whose continued existence rests on his ability to deliver to Stalin the tape of a concerto that was, alas, broadcast live unrecorded.

It's the casualness of the horror that makes you cry out in disbelief. When Beria decides to win the Soviet people's favor by halting executions, it takes time for his order to trickle down, during which an officer in the midst of putting bullets into people's heads takes huffy umbrage when a messenger tries to interrupt him and waves him off to get one more victim in. The message to stop is delivered, whereupon the next man in line - spared - gazes blankly at his neighbor's body, barely able to process the half-second difference between life and death. In such small strokes, "The Death Of Stalin" transforms farce into tragedy.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about artificial intelligence, driverless cars, robotics, virtual reality and other emerging high tech. What are some of the new breakthroughs, like using computers to read scans and identify signs of lung cancer, and what can go wrong? My guest will be Cade Metz, who covers high tech for The New York Times and looks at where these technologies are taking us for better or worse. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

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