The Death of Stalin is a ripping black satirical farce about power. Specifically it looks at what happens when a dictator dies and his inner circle scrambles to grab as much power as they can while appearing to respect the party norms (if you can even call them norms).
Starring Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, and Jeffrey Tambor, The Death of Stalin could just as easily be a look forward into what could happen in this country as it is a look back to the good ole’ days of the USSR, but I digress.
Director Armando Iannucci illustrates the ridiculous scheming and backstabbing of each of the party members upon the sudden and unexpected death of their leader. In addition, he shows how the fear that rules the country affects almost everyone down to the leader of a mere stage producer. In this opening scene, he receives a call from Stalin who wants a recording of the concert. As the audience members leave at the end of the performance, the director finds out the recording mechanism wasn’t working and has to have the orchestra perform it again. He frantically stops some of the audience members from the audience from leaving, but misses a bunch of them and has to resort to bringing in random people off the streets in order to get the packed sound he’s after, lest Stalin find out the hall wasn’t full and have the director shot.
This first sequence is captivating as we see from the get-go how maddening just living one’s life can be and how the orchestra leader has to deal with everything from the unexpected call from a dictator, to never-ending finger-pointing of his comrades, to the open rebellion from the piano player.
From there the film just gets wilder as we we watch Stalin’s inner circle kowtow to him, then switch their stated views right and left as they try to figure out if he’s dead, if he’s going to die, how long he’ll live, if he can hear them, and which sides each of his comrades is playing. It’s a bit like dropping one steak into a pit of hungry dogs (not that I’ve ever done that).
Iannucci gives us a fantastic portrayal of the drama and sadness this all through scenes throughout the film. In one we watch a son inform on his father to the NKVD (the KGB before it was the KGB) and see them take his father from his home to be shot. We view both the bullying nature of Stalin’s children and the fear that runs through them. And we see how Palin’s Vyacheslav Molotov (yes, of the cocktail fame), waffles, appearing sad that his wife is dead, to glad, to sad, to glad depending on who’s around him at the time.
Buscemi plays future Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev as a minor leaguer with his eyes on the majors. Constantly both underestimated and in the crosshairs of his comrades, he has to worm his way through various not-so-subtle attacks by the head of the NKVD, Lavrenti Beria (played by Simon Russell Beale), who’s in the business of hoarding his comrades secrets to use as leverage when needed. Working under the radar, he’s one of the last you’d expect to end up on top.
Filled with a cast of chaos, the film moves from slightly funny to hilarious to poignant to frightening back to hilarious in record time showing us how the Soviet empire ended up being one of the most dangerous superpowers on the planet.
The Death of Stalin isn’t a perfect film, but it’s fun, enjoyable and intelligent, coming out at a perfect time as many in the audience find themselves wondering what the future brings.