Film review: The Death of Stalin

Written by Scarlett Butler

 

 

The film The Death of Stalin, adapted from a French comic of the same name, considers the power struggle which follows Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) death and which rages whilst the Soviet high-ups are arranging the dictator’s funeral. The main rivals are the Minister for Internal Affairs, Lavrenti Beria, convincingly played as a sadist and a conniving toad by Simon Russell Beale, and the anxious General Secretary, Nikita Khrushchev, played by Steve Buscemi. Initially Beria allies himself with the vain and wavering Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin’s official successor, who is struggling to command respect from the politburo. Meanwhile, Khrushchev attempts to use the military influence of war hero Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), a general with a comical number of medals, and the Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, played expertly by Michael Palin, who contorts himself into following the Stalinist line. Stalin’s children look on, the spoilt but suffering Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and the outrageously drunk Vasily (Rupert Friend), helpless and useless once the political machinations begin.

    The humour uses fear of denunciation and death to drive the comedy. Iannucci is an experienced ridiculer of ridiculous politicians and he adeptly builds a backdrop of terror created by the feverish Stalinist purges. Despite his death, Stalin is present throughout. Death itself as an ally of the state is prominent too. Stalin’s hapless replacement Malenkov aptly despairs, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t remember who’s alive.’ This driving fear of dissent and death crept closer and closer to Stalin in his final years. It led him to imprison his colleagues, his friends and eventually his family. Many of the politburo who survive beyond Stalin were meant by him to be disposed of eventually. Death enveloped Stalin himself on the 5 March 1953 in a horrifying spectacle. He lay dying of a stroke, entirely alone, in what Buscemi’s Khrushchev calls a ‘puddle of indignity’.

    The film is better at capturing the atmosphere of paranoia and scheming politics than offering any guide to historical events. With regard to accuracy, the characters are moulded into more comic or villainous types, but the humour tends to heighten what we know about these historical characters rather than wholly fabricating it. It seems clear that only sycophants, the power hungry and the ruthless could ever climb to the level of the politburo, and although Beria’s sexual crimes make him a particularly evil figure, none can keep their hands clean. Luckily for the viewer, negative character traits make for better humour.

    With regard to historical events, the film edits and compresses the history for the ease of viewers. For example, here Molotov is the one that just escapes execution, when in reality it was Beria who was about to be purged, blamed for not catching the Kremlin doctors, who were outed as Jewish spies in a show trial that year. Similarly, Stalin’s long held anti-Semitism, which reached a paranoid crescendo just before he died, is another unexplored area. In early 1953, Stalin planned mass deportations of Jews in the Soviet Union to Siberian Camps. He sadistically planned for the deportations to fall around the Jewish holiday of Purim, which celebrates Jewish delivery from total destruction at the hands of Haman. Instead, the film focuses on the better-known and less politically complex death lists. Lists of names, written to reach regional quotas that peaked in the terror of 1937-8. They were so quotidian to Stalin and his allies that on the 12 December 1937 Stalin and Molotov sanctioned 3,167 death sentences, before breaking to attend the cinema. In focusing on this aspect of Stalinism, the film chooses to avoid other shadows lurking around the dictator’s death. In this film, these lists illuminate evils of Stalinism in symbolic and anecdotal scenes, apt for a satire, rather than trying to recreate an accurate portrait of the events. Certainly, the near surreal nature of Stalinist government, reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, suits the black comedy genre, whilst the inclusion of many dark and difficult scenes addressing the brutality of this world ensure they are not soon forgotten.

Bibliography

  • Brackman, Roman. The Secret File of Joseph Stalin: A Hidden Life. London: Frank Cass, 2001.
  • Bulley, Tony. Stalin: Inside the Terror. Directed by Tony Bulley. London: BBC, 2003.
  • Iannucci, Armando. The Death of Stalin. Directed by Armando Iannucci. Los Angeles: eOne Films, 2017.
  • Service, Robert. Stalin: A Biography. London: Pan Books, 2010.

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