Armando Iannucci achieves new heights (lows?) of disquieting nihilism in the murderously vicious The Death of Stalin, his much-delayed follow-up to his decade-defining, Bush-era-capping In The Loop. That earlier film was a trans-national, Pond-hopping comedy of (foul)manners, both exceedingly timely and essentially timeless in 2009. (Visualizing Western politics as a dangerously out-of-control carousel, it remains the quintessential Iraq War film, and, to my mind, the sharpest commentary on the Bush era). In 2018, The Death of Stalin may be no less timely in an era of sudden Russian ascension, even if the particular brand of relatively gun-on-its-sleeve totalitarianism depicted and mocked in The Death of Stalin is less than truly applicable to either modern Russia or America’s brand of oppression which compresses classical liberalism, neoliberalism, and totalitarianism into a 21st century stew. Still, while making fun of this relatively “explicit” brand of totalitarianism is not the most cutting in 2018, The Death of Stalin is obviously a scorching, bracing, extremely obstreperous film nonetheless. And for all its gravid, ghoulish potency, Iannucci’s film is also a sage refuge for cinematic comedy, not only almost unmanageably uproarious but piquant in its observations on the depths of human selfishness and the intercommunal pandemonium of the political sphere at its foulest.
With its brutally objective, managerial title suggesting the film’s emphasis on the sharpest abjection evoked in the banalest of situations, The Death of Stalin condenses years of brutal factionalism and instability in the already teetering Soviet Union to a country-side weekend. The film’s tagline farcically and fittingly updates Renoir’s The Rules of the Game and drops us into a “comedy of terrors” that mobilizes both hierarchy and horizontality for blood-curdling humor. When Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) collapses of a cerebral hemorrhage, the Soviet hierarchy is cast about, ricocheting around one another and violently stepping on each other’s feet, clumsily, haphazardly, and paranoiacally in equal measure.
With the truly brutal, wheedling Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the generally disinclined Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), the ever-anxious Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and the feverishly devoted Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) alternately vying for power, survival, and simply sanity, and the lately-intruding machismo of General Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) stirring the cocktail even further, The Death of Stalin is not wanting for nerve-wracking dominos to fall on top of one another, nor for comedic chops. With its extraordinarily talented cast, Iannucci’s film makes a strong case not only for the thin membrane between comedy and terror but that the Soviet hierarchy are veritable successors to the throne of, as Buscemi’s Kruschev points out in the Borschtiest, most Brooklynite of tones, Abbott and Costello.
Considering all the violence on display (most of it more blood-curdling due to its relegation to the periphery), it’s initially surprising that Iannucci’s most controversial gesture, somewhat ironically, was to allow his cast to speak in their uninflected natural accents. But it’s also poetically satisfying that the decision has caused confusion, since it’s also his most devious, one gesture which truly reaps dividends by stirring not only the pot of what comedy can depict but how comedy, or any fiction, can truly represent the ghost of a past which it hasn’t fully lived. From the casual, almost gleeful, indifference to any representational interpretation of mid-century Soviet Union to the semi-absurdist awareness that this is in no way a literal incarnation of mid-century life in present-day Russia, The Death of Stalin paradoxically mines textures both naturalistic and plastic, real and performative, teasing out the ways in which this high-artifice fracas is aiming for something beyond literal, direct reality. In turn, this decision both extends the film’s allegorical targets into the present day and exposes a certain presumptive arrogance in the notion of a “historical fiction” which aspires to an illusion of objective reality.
Which is to say: Buscemi’s Brooklyn accent goes beyond arbitrary just-for-shits-and-giggles absurdism. In its vocal heterogeneity, The Death of Stalin is a comedy with an honest-to-God formal conceit, and not even a mere visual gimmick! A beguiling solution of naturalistic/unvarnished performance and theatrical/proscenium-set staging, the film questions the assumption that our preconceptions of a “Russian accent,” passing muster to our Western ears, would actually match to “historical reality” in the first place, especially provocative when one considers how wide-ranging and literally multi-vocal, even multi-lingual the Soviet Union was.
Beyond this metatextual irony, though, the film’s vocal performances also expose the crucial dilemma of the totalitarian situation: under the vise-grip of totalitarianism (not that liberalism is necessarily different), with surreptitious gazes Panoptically permeating everywhere, every personal consideration becomes a social performance. And the performance colonizes the soul, erodes the self beneath the performance, turns every waking person into a walking pantomime of The Social Ideal.
Fittingly then, The Death of Stalin is a truly morbid comedy, not only because of its displays of murder but its formal evocation of modernity’s murder of the present. The Death of Stalin galvanizes its grim, mordant demeanor in a loose, contrapuntal screwiness which captures modernity in transition. In other words, the film is essentially a momentary poetry of a modernity where the rules of existence – political, social, physical, verbal – are being overwritten and revisited by the second, leaving everyone just a minute away from catching up to the present and a few seconds from falling behind into the past. This is ultimately a screwball where the verbal and physical shenanigans evoke not the high-spirited elegance of sufficiently capable women and men but a world that is disarticulating the mind even as, or because, it asks us to spend so much time violently grasping for any sense of self-definition.
Adapted by Iannucci along with David Schneider and Ian Martin from a French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, the film also ropes in Stalin’s children, the feverishly alcoholic Vasily (Rupert Friend) and, more importantly, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), Stalin’s daughter and the only relatively competent character in the entire film. Although the malevolent Beria, vacillating between a truly imperious papa bear and an impish baby wearing adult clothing, is obviously the highlight here, the sharpest scenes evoke a many-headed hydra with the heads encircling and tripping over each other, all desperately feigning a movement in unison. From a truly paranoid Malenkov, heartbreakingly adrift if he wasn’t so pathetic, to Kruschev who farcically confronts every crisis with a diffident frustration, a Yiddish-inflected indifference registering not terror or rage but the kind of mild frustration one gets when not being able to find the remote control, every figure would be a wringer in another comedy. Each member in the cast is unsurprisingly astonishing, spinning Iannucci’s cynical nihilism into nasty-minded gold and exploring the grave seriousness of a situation even as they revel in the absurdity of the Soviet hierarchy chumming around indignantly to John Wayne Westerns.
But the ephemeral presence of John Wayne in the film may clue us into another interpretation, one seconded again by the distinctly Western vocal deliveries: that the film refracts back onto the United States as well, suggesting not that this is ultimately, as I wrote at the top, a comedy about Soviet Russia that lets the US off the hook but a film which checks up on the state of Western society and finds it, as many US critics have before, drifting toward the totalitarian. Or rather, diagnosing the latent totalitarian tendencies in democracy itself.