Tragedy plus time equals comedy, or so the saving goes. A handful of topics are so heinous, however, that they seem to defy this formulation. It’s now been more than eight decades since the end of World War II in Europe, and although some stand-up comedians have dabbled in Holocaust jokes — mostly by joking about how they can’t tell Holocaust jokes — the world has yet to see an out-and-out comedy film about the Shoah. And, no, The Producers (1968) doesn’t count.
The incalculable mass murder and other totalitarian crimes committed by the Soviet Union in the early to middle 20th century also seem to fall into this “eternally too soon” category, and perhaps defensibly so. Depending on how one estimates the body count, Communist Party General Secretary (and later Soviet Premier) Joseph Stalin was responsible for more deaths during his 1922-1953 tenure than Adolf Hitler was during his admittedly much briefer rule. The USSR tally encompasses political executions, deaths by forced labor, targeted ethnic purges, and de facto genocidal campaigns such as the Holodomor, in which millions of peasants — mostly ethnic Ukrainians — were deliberately starved to death.
Such grim events might seem beyond mockery, but that has not dissuaded Scottish writer-director Armando Iannucci from taking a stab at it. As the mind behind the scabrous, pitch-black comedy of the BBC series The Thick of It (2005 -2012), its spinoff feature film In the Loop (2009), and the HBO series Veep (2012-2019), Iannucci is arguably the reigning master of English-language political satire. His narrative approach privileges the absurdities that unfold in the halls of power rather the day-to-day actualities of the “real world.” This turns out to be an entirely fitting angle of attack when Stalinism is the richly deserving target. In his new feature, The Death of Stalin, Iannucci keeps the bloody deeds of the Soviet leader’s regime mostly offscreen — with a couple of notable exceptions — focusing instead on the feverish playacting, plotting, and treachery within the USSR’s Central Committee.
Although based on a French comic of the same name by writer Fabien Nury and artist Thierry Robin, The Death of Stalin is an Iannucci venture through and through. The film’s comedy is the sort that emerges when a cabal of cunning, ruthless, and thoroughly ridiculous old men have the political rug abruptly yanked out from under them after three decades. Much as In the Loop found the humor in the Iraq War by showing how specious and ludicrous the Bush-era process of declaring war could be, The Death of Stalin unearths the comedy behind the Gulag by satirizing the sort of venal yes-men that made such horrors possible. The film is not as overtly cartoonish as Doctor Strangelove (1964), but it shares that feature’s fascination with the glib sociopathy of powerful men.
The feature’s opening scene handily illustrates the perverse, terror-based cult of personality that had grown up around Stalin by the 1950s. Secluded at his dacha, Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is so taken by a live orchestra broadcast on Radio Moscow that he requests a copy of the performance. Unfortunately, the program was not recorded, obliging the terrified producer (an amusingly clammy Paddy Considine) to lock the doors and order the orchestra to play the performance again, in its entirety. The star pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) agrees to this farce under protest, but she also slips a scathing note to Stalin in with the freshly pressed vinyl disc. Stalin reads this missive later that evening, more with amusement than fury, and then promptly suffers a cerebral hemorrhage.
The unconscious Soviet premier remains on the floor until the following morning, whereupon his staff find him lying in a pool of his own urine. Although Stalin clings to life for a bit longer, the mad scramble for power commences the moment his prone form is discovered. Iannucci helpfully identifies the main players with onscreen titles, but the byzantine details of the Soviet bureaucracy matter less than the personalities involved. To that end, Iannucci has taken an unconventional path with respect to his performers, having them act in their more-or-less normal speaking voices. There are no kludgy Red Sparrow-style Russian accents here, but rather a grab bag of American and English dialects. This approach is undeniably uncanny, but it allows the individual actors to lean into the audience’s preconceptions regarding the sorts of characters they typically portray — an asset in a screenplay that unfolds at a hurried pace once the titular dictator keels over.
Plans for a political transition are already in place, but Stalin’s nominal successor is Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), a craven nitwit who is held in contempt by the rest of the Committee. In short order, two post-Stalin factions emerge: one spearheaded by Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the feared chief of the secret police, the NKVD; and one led by Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), an agricultural minister whose rumpled, sad-sack demeanor belies his cunning. (In one early, telling scene prior to the dictator’s demise, a pajama-clad Khrushchev lists aloud which of his jokes made Stalin laugh earlier that evening, while his wife dutifully writes them down for future reference.) Beria outmaneuvers his rival initially, stoking the callow Malenkov’s ego in the hopes that Stalin’s heir will prove a malleable puppet. Khrushchev, meanwhile, finds himself effectively sidelined when he’s appointed to oversee Comrade Stalin’s gargantuan state funeral. While others plot, he’s reduced to picking out floral arrangements.
The Committee is a rogue’s gallery of callous, disingenuous fools — all of them pawns or bishops in the unfolding struggle between Beria and Khrushchev. Unctuous foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) once cheerfully stood by as Stalin sent his wife to the Gulag. Unbeknownst to Molotov, he was added to one of Beria’s dreaded “lists” the very night of Stalin’s hemorrhage, marking him for detention and execution. Beria reverses this order, as well as other recent list additions, in the hopes of winning allies and (rather ludicrously) painting himself as a reformer. This is too much for Khrushchev, who imagines that he is the reformer: “You’re the good guy now?! You locked up half the nation!” “Yes,” Beria responds with a glimmer of triumph, “and now I’m releasing them.”
The Committee is also forced to contend with Stalin’s children, Vasily (Rupert Friend) and Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough). The former is a hot-headed drunk, prone to pulling his pistol at the slightest provocation, but he’s ultimately a clownish coward at heart. (A running joke involves Vasily’s concealment of a national and political disaster: a plane crash that has killed most of the Soviet Air Force hockey team, an organization that the junior Stalin personally oversaw.) Svetlana, in contrast, is beloved by the Soviet public, and there’s a grotesque hilarity in the way that the Committee members stumble over each other to coddle and console her. Stalking the funeral proceedings is Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), a World War II hero and current head of the Soviet Army. Zhukov’s abrasive frankness and alpha-male strutting are a poor fit for the skullduggery of the Politburo, but Khrushchev recognizes that the Red Army is a potentially crucial counterweight to the NKVD’s security forces.
These events are not exactly the stuff of hearty belly laughs, and the film’s screenplay — by Iannucci, David Schneider, and Ian Martin, with an “additional material by” credit to Peter Fellows — wisely refrains from playing the ghoulish reality of prisons, executions, and coups d’état for chuckles. Nor is The Death of Stalin particularly flush with laugh-out-loud snark or delectable profanity. In this respect, the film contrasts sharply with the director’s masterful In the Loop, in which virtually every line of dialogue is quotable. (Iannucci’s latest also lacks an analog to Malcomb Tucker, who acted as In the Loop’s cynical and hatefully foul-mouthed id.) Instead, what Stalin serves up is the cringe comedy of tyranny, where much of the humor lies in the way that the characters twist themselves into hopeless knots as they navigate a Soviet wonderland of double-speak, loyalty tests, and perpetual historical revisionism. Iannucci’s characters think nothing of shamelessly flip-flopping their position in the space of a single sentence — an Orwellian feat that until recently was thought to be the domain of outmoded Marxist dictatorships, rather than, say, sitting American politicians.
Proximally, The Death of Stalin is aimed squarely at the bloody farce that was the USSR in the depths of the Cold War, but Iannucci isn’t truly striving to take Stalin or his sycophants down a peg. (Which would be akin to shooting fish in a barrel, anyway.) Academics are still sorting out the actual, mind-boggling extent of the Soviet Union’s crimes, and this film is far too ahistorical and simplistic to qualify as genuine critique of the Stalinist regime. Rather, Iannucci positions the USSR as a kind of reductio ad absurdum illustration of authoritarianism’s lunacy, whatever its national or ethnic context. The film’s mishmash of Brooklyn, Oxfordshire, and Liverpool accents underlines this universality. The spot-on production design might be Moscow 1953, but the madness portrayed — the brazen lies, the political theater, the cynicism, the brutality, and the perpetual fear — is stateless and timeless.
In a few instances, The Death of Stalin pushes its novel strain of humor almost to the breaking point, allowing it to shade into outright anguish and terror. This is particularly the case in the final act, as the various players conclude that Beria is far too ruthlessly ambitious (and too knowledgeable vis-à-vis their personal skeletons) to be left unchecked. Cold-blooded and complacent, the secret police's chief makes for a wonderfully hiss-able villain — particularly given his habit of compelling sex from the NKVD's prisoners, including minors. However, as the noose begins to close around Beria, The Death of Stalin becomes much too nasty and discomfiting for simple hero-or-villain binaries. It emphasizes that even its more sympathetic characters, such as Khrushchev and Molotov, are monsters with copious blood on their hands. This ghastliness isn’t swirled smoothly into the comedy; it squats matter-of-factly in the half-light, as noxious and repulsive as a venomous toad. This tonal high-wire act ultimately works, but it’s discernibly wobbly at times.
The film is on shakier ground in those rare cases where it makes an ill-advised stab at pathos, such as when Svetlana reminisces about a happy childhood memory, or when Molotov is abruptly reunited with the wife he thought was long-dead. The actors convey these occasional moments credibly enough, but given that the film largely eschews sentimentality — its characters are all fiends, fools, or victims, almost without exception — such gestures feel forced, and to no particularly fertile dramatic or thematic end.
Conversely, The Death of Stalin finds a more effective counterpoint to its Eastern Bloc darkness through physical comedy, some of it marvelously low-key and some ridiculously gawky. Highlights of the former species include a recurring gag in which characters kneel inadvertently in the prone Stalin’s urine, and an unassuming bit where Kruschev attempts (and fails) to surreptitiously switch spots with other Committee members during the viewing of the premier’s body. Iannucci generally keeps the slapstick naturalistic, underlining the essential human sordidness of the film’s ludicrous events. There’s no tightly choreographed Buster Keaton silliness here, but there are several prolonged sequences of graceless grappling and scrabbling, often over a loaded pistol. This makes the characters look more like squabbling toddlers than political masterminds. However, the aim isn't to humanize the Soviet leaders, who are amoral apparatchiks and hard-hearted killers, one and all. Rather, it illustrates that the film’s horrors (and all totalitarian horrors, everywhere) are rooted not in the esoteric nooks and crannies of ideology, but in grubby, all-too-human failings: pride, rage, greed, and good old-fashioned lust for power.