It might seem odd to satirise Communism in 2017. Everywhere we look we seem to live in a world where right wing reaction, rather than left wing utopianism is king. It has given us Trump in America, Brexit in Britain and (almost) Le Pen in France. Armando Ianucci (The Thick of It, Veep) has a history when it comes to his work being released at the wrong cultural moment. His previous feature, In The Loop, was a take down of militarism released in 2009; at the start of the Obama presidency. Everyone was still basking in the afterglow of the election of a black president and looking to the promise of hope and change. Obama himself was being given a pre-emptive Nobel Peace Prize. In retrospect he was, of course, not the Messiah and the award was ludicrous but In The Loop was, nonetheless, judged to have come out at the wrong point in the zeitgeist. The Death of Stalin, though, makes a scary amount of sense in a political climate where Authoritarianism is, once again, in the ascendant and diplomacy is reduced to a dick measuring contest between ‘strong’ men. Watching all these grotesque schemers bumble and trip across the screen in an attempt to fill a power vacuum you can’t help but think of the Trump White House. The comparison may seem glib but only because it’s so perfect. Also, what does it say about Trump that he doesn’t even need to die to create this kind of omnishambles?
The story, unsurprisingly, takes place in the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s sudden departure at the hands of a massive stroke. We’ve been introduced to a cabal of likely successors. There’s the unlikeable and ineffectual Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the terrifying secret policeman and sadist Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the drink sodden boss’ son Vasily (Rupert Friend) and the stressed out, class clown Nikita Khruschev (Steve Buscemi). They bicker, jockey and, at one point, literally attempt to wrestle for control. With a passing knowledge of history you’ll know how it ends but, on the way there, the film does a great job of introducing this as an ensemble piece. Nothing feels pre-ordained, all things considered. Ianucci has a wonderful gift for making fun of systems where some point of etiquette may, at any moment, get away from someone and create a life and death faux pas.
Most of Ianucci’s work focuses on fear. He finds glee in showing political and media classes motivated by no higher ideology than the desire not to fuck up as they climb the greasy pole. The difference between this and, say Veep, is that the consequence of failure is not a rough few days on twitter but torture and execution. This is a farce but it is a very, very dark one. Ianucci does not shy away from devastating moments in the middle of a comic set piece. We see characters trapped like rabbits in headlights such as the guards afraid to interrupt Stalin dying or an unnamed young man whose smoke is interrupted by a secret policeman asking what floor his father lives on. One sequence, in particular, is scarier than most horror films. Innocent people are suddenly rounded up to be murdered, confused and panicked, oblivious to why someone has suddenly found it expedient to kill them. As a guard loads the last of them on to a truck the man beside him calmly turns to the guard and dutifully shoots him in the head. No loose ends. It’s startling but also a blackly funny piece of punctuation to a harrowing scene.
There is little solace to be found. The many laughs are either passing slapstick or gallows humour. A small glimmer is that Khruschev is characterised as a not totally monstrous man in a monstrous system. He’s the least worst option that we hope to win out over the irredeemable Beria. Buscemi is wonderful when it comes to playing scumbags that we kinda like (see Nucky Thompson) and his skills give Khruschev just enough likeability. One joke involves his wife trying to make sense of his drunken note taking, listing what jokes the boss laughed at over dinner the previous night. It’s hard not to feel for him. He’s terrified of the man he works for but smart enough to work on his routine to survive. He may not be a good guy but he’s the closest we have. There’s even a weird bit of ‘We will bury you‘ fan service for the Kruschev lovers in the house.
From the above I might not be clear enough. At this point I’ll out and say that The Death of Stalin is hilarious. Pompous characters are introduced in gurning, slo-mo title cards. Official doctrine gives way to vulgarity, particularly with the gruff, military man Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). Humans still crack wise in awful situations. As Moscow is placed on lockdown the guards engage in blokey, bouncer-style humour with a bewildered civilian. One moment where a dying Stalin gestures at a painting turns into a Communist ‘blessed are the cheesmakers’ bit. It even has a Python there in the form of Michael Palin playing the old believer Molotov. The assembled apparatchiks believe the dying man of steel is pointing at the depiction of someone feeding a lamb. ‘He’s saying ‘I am the lamb” one tearfully opines. Another asks if perhaps the lamb is Russia and the milk it’s drinking is the milk of Socialism. A debate ensues until they realise that the dying man was groping at the glass of water in front of the painting.
Ianucci’s world view rejects the liberal fantasy of Aaron Sorkin, where politics is reduced to a logical debate, as it does the braindead cynicism of House of Cards, where politics is reduced to the scheming of a Batman Villain. For him, it’s petty people, sometimes kinda believing their own bullshit, forming an endless, circular firing squad. In its pessimism it’s hard not to compare The Death of Stalin to Kubrick’s Dr Stangelove; a film so grim that it ends with everyone on Earth, presumably, dying. It’s a huge credit toThe Death of Stalin that the comparison is not an unkind one.