It is always a mixed blessing when a mainstream figure takes on your pet subject, as The Thick Of It and Veep creator Armando Iannucci has done with his new feature film, The Death of Stalin. I’ve been reading and arguing about Soviet history for a while now, and although it’s satisfying to see events I’ve puzzled over in academic contexts given the brash, big-screen treatment, I’m predisposed to quibble over minor details, leaving me open to the accurate rejoinder that I’m a pedantic elitist.
Luckily for me, then, The Death of Stalin doesn’t just fall short when it comes to the kind of granular historical and cultural detail that I might call out; this is a film fundamentally ill equipped to locate the comedy inherent to Stalinism, missing marks it doesn’t know it should be aiming for.
Iannucci’s film is a compressed adaptation of Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel of the same name, and details the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death from a stroke in March 1953. Before the body is cold, members of the Politburo are scurrying around in an attempt to shore up their positions in a court suddenly in need of a king. Chief among the scurriers are Moscow Party head Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and NKVD (secret police) chief Lavrenty Beria (Simon Russell Beale). These two men — the former effusive and unctuous, the latter composed and brutal — must manipulate a supporting cast of fellow high-rankers, including Stalin’s hapless deputy Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), hangdog loyalist Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Stalin’s vaguely crazed children Svetlana and Vasily (Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend) and a truculent Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs).
Iannucci and longtime co-writer Ian Martin are experienced comedy craftsmen, and this is a fine cast. And while there’s no real suspense involved (spoiler alert: Khrushchev wins), there’s plenty of material here for a black political farce. So what does Iannucci get so wrong?
First of all, there is the irony that this liberal critique of the historical falsification associated with Stalinism — the end credits play out over a montage of blacked-out photos — leans heavily on a raft of historical inaccuracies. As has been pointed out elsewhere, at the time of Stalin’s death, Molotov had long been sacked and Zhukov demoted to the provinces; Beria’s eventual downfall, which the film squeezes into a few days, actually took several months and was prompted in part by events in East Germany (as always with Iannucci, the concern is with several shouty men in a room, rather than any wider context). More worryingly, the deaths of about 1,500 people in crushes around Stalin’s funeral are casually attributed to trigger-happy NKVD officers in order to make a point about the rivalry between Beria and Khrushchev, an unnecessary, even callous addendum.
This is a film fundamentally ill equipped to locate the comedy inherent to Stalinism, missing marks it doesn’t know it should be aiming for
These inconsistencies can perhaps be justified inasmuch as they help focus the drama. What truly grates, though, is the portrayal of Beria and the NKVD. The very first subtitle bizarrely tells us that by 1953, Stalin’s “great terror” — i.e., the gruesome purges of 1936-38 — has been going on for 20 years. This sets the stage for a hackneyed, wearisome depiction of political repression at work, which mainly seems to consist of Russell Beale’s Beria strolling around the Lubyanka, personally dishing out beatings and orchestrating shootings, taking time out only to rape young working girls.
Iannucci seems so determined to turn Beria into a throbbing nucleus of evil, an avatar of the obscenities of the Stalinist state, that he drastically misses both the point of, and the comedy in this system of abuse and privilege. Of course, Beria was an odious sadist, but, as a friend put it to me, you wouldn’t make a film of the George W. Bush years that had Donald Rumsfeld personally waterboarding Guantanamo detainees. Iannucci’s approach to satire is simply not transferable to something like Stalinism, because in losing himself in these reveries of dictatorship, he forgets to say anything about the actual mechanisms of power.
What made The Thick Of It so compelling at its peak was that it grasped the practical reality of Westminster: a series of exasperated bureaucrats alienated from the consequences of their decisions, caught up in the ever-unspooling process of government. And that is precisely where the black comedy of Stalinism lies, too — in the fact that faceless pencil-pushers could combine to enact mass death, the memo a more potent symbol of the system than the rifle, the whole thing a meeting of bland procedural discipline and actual murder. There is not enough banality in Iannucci’s portrait of evil.
We see horror, and we see satire, but never in conjunction
The director-writer has said that he was attracted to the idea of making a film about a dictator because he wanted to explore “how people, just by their personality, manage to captivate an entire country.” But his Stalin, played here as a Cockney tough by Adrian McLoughlin, is only onscreen for a few minutes and is no more menacing than your average Eastenders character. After he pegs out, we’re left with Buscemi and Russel Beale gamely throwing themselves into some pretty limp material, with the final coup de grace delivered by Zhukov in perfunctory style. We know from memoirs and archives how these meetings played out, the venality of it all; there is verbal comedy in the kind of ludicrous Stalinist doublespeak that defined the period; there is physical comedy in these aging men and their puerile behavior; Iannucci and Martin would prefer to fall back on their practiced English mannerisms (“clattering fannies” and “flesh lumps in waistcoats”) and stock establishing shots of the Kremlin glowering ominously in the Moscow night.
There are other gripes to be had with this film. Why make a cheap gag about gormless peasants forced to sit through a recording of a Mozart concerto when the Soviet Union of the 1950s was perhaps the most culturally egalitarian state in the world? Why play up Beria’s alleged sexual violence without tackling such a grim subject seriously? Why not involve more Russians in the production of a film that could never get made in contemporary Russia? As a comedy, though, it fails the basic test of making what it puts onscreen funny.
The raft of five-star reviews that have greeted The Death of Stalin seem to suggest that this is a masterpiece of gallows humour; for Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, it’s “sulphurous”, a “horror-satire”. But for whatever reason — lack of interest in the details of the period, unwillingness to depart from a proven comedy formula, spurious liberalism — Iannucci and co fail to blend the two ingredients of that formula. We see horror, and we see satire, but never in conjunction. The result is a lacklustre and tonally confused story about some awful men being awful to each other. Which is fine, but just maybe, if you want to show your concern for the crimes of Stalinism, you might make some effort to understand what it actually was. You’d find there’s plenty to laugh and cry about.