' ' Cinema Romantico: The Death of Stalin

Monday, April 02, 2018

The Death of Stalin

Satirizing dictatorial authoritarians has a long cinematic lineage. Charlie Chaplin skewered Hitler in “The Great Dictator” at the onset of WWII and so many spring times later the great lampooner Mel Brooks had fun with the same mustachioed dufus. More recently, Team ZAZ took all manner of broad potshots at Saddam Hussein while Seth Rogen & James Franco portrayed Kim Jong-un as a Katy Perry obsessed daddy’s boy. And while the eponymous Soviet Premier of “The Death of Stalin” does appear, played by Adrian McLoughlin, director Armando Ianucci, basing his film off Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel, is less interested in sending up Stalin himself than extracting incredibly black comedy from the immense terror Stalin instilled in everyone around him.

You see this black comedy in the opening sequence where a Radio Moscow producer, Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine), is ordered by the Soviet Premier to record a concerto that has, alas, just finished. As such, Andreyev re-creates and records the concerto on the fly, trucking in people from the streets to replace those who already left to ensure the sound is right, a scene that might be rendered with madcap alacrity but is just as noteworthy for the gruff resignation with which most everyone else deals with this inconvenience, like it’s old hat, everyone reduced to mere play-actors of Stalin’s cruel imagination, demonstrating how all the humor here is informed by the fear of reprisal, an entire society essentially walking on eggshells.

Of course, as the title implies, at the tail-end of this curtain raiser, Stalin does die, more or less, seemingly poisoned and then collapsing in his private quarters at which point Ianucci cuts to the door just outside where two men stand guard. At the sound of the thud, one guard wants to enter while the other guard harshly councils against it because if they go in and nothing is wrong, the guards will undoubtedly be killed. What’s more, when Stalin is discovered and doctors are summoned, it is realized no decent doctors are left; Stalin has killed them all. There is bleak, delicious irony in that, an insecure, vainglorious man whose death comes about on account of sentencing everyone else to death. From there, the remaining rabble of Stalin’s cabinet jockey for position as the movie plays these political machinations for mean farce, reminding us that with great power comes great paranoia.

Throughout Iannucci opts for comedy over historical accuracy as evinced by his choosing American and English comic actors and letting them employ their various real-life accents as opposed to adopting Russian ones, giving the story more of a ring of the universal, a la Ernst Lubisch’s Nazi send-up, “To Be or Not to Be.” As such, Jeffrey Tambor invests General Secretary Malenkov with a wobbly cadence that sort of imagines Stalin’s brief successor as George Bluth Sr. by way of George Bluth Jr., outwardly convinced of his own self-worth, inwardly hapless. Steve Buscemi, meanwhile, as vocally a distinct a performer as there is, retains his Brooklyn-ish accent to portray Nikita Khrushchev as something like a low-level wiseguy struggling to become a made man.

That, however, gives Khrushchev more of a spastic air than a sinister one, which unforunately sucks some of the air out of his emergent rivalry with Beria (Simon Russell Beale), head of the NKVD. Even so, the rotund Beria is a worthy villain, his ample size less some sort of fat joke than emblematic of how he becomes the mover and shaker around which everyone else is forced to orbit. And even if “The Death of Stalin” only hints at the character’s boundless real life nastiness, Beale plays the part with such an unscrupulous twinkle in his eye that you assume he’s capable of anything. His comeuppance, unfortunately, is also the film’s most glaring weakness, hampered by the aforementioned refusal to truly address Beria’s sins which negates Iannucci’s attempt to incorporate gravity amidst so much erstwhile absurdity. As actual violent retribution, the character’s fate falls flat.

The violence, strange as it may sound, is better suited to satire, particularly in the early-going, where Iannucci stages a walk and talk sequence to extraordinary black comic effect, allowing us to see bodies tumble down stairs in the background while gunshots never stop echoing off the walls. Indeed, gunshots have never mattered so much, which is to say they have never mattered so little. When Jules Winfield just all of a sudden shot the guy on the couch in “Pulp Fiction”, it was a wicked means to substantiate his threat, but here every gunshot feels tossed off, no different than jack-hammering on some street corner as office workers hustle by.

The Terror, in this light, is like the floor of a factory, gaspingly insensitive but simultaneously incisive, shedding as much light on emotional conditions in Stalin’s Russia as any sober drama, true to the nature of the never-ending executions that were employed to keep the regime running. Iannucci furthers that sensation with his screwball aesthetic, where reams of verbal jousting are rendered at a blistering pace with an oft-nimble camera. There are so many jokes you can barely keep up, wearied even more by each wisecrack’s macabre nature. Malenkov captures the mood early, after offending his overlord with the wrong query at the wrong time. “I’m exhausted,” he says. “I don’t know who’s alive and who’s dead.”

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