Armando Iannucci has a gift for satire, as fans of the HBO hit Veep are well aware. Iannucci created that series which stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the narcissistic vice president Selina Meyer, who briefly occupies the Oval Office. Ianucci’s new film, The Death of Stalin, is based on the French graphic novel, La mort de Staline, and imagines the Soviet power struggle that ensued after the death of the ruthless dictator Joseph Stalin. The film benefits from a very talented cast. (Part of the fun is identifying them as they appear.) There are no Russian accents, rather each actor brings his own persona to the role, adding to the absurdity and amusement of what’s on screen.
The film begins with a live performance of a Mozart recital on Radio Moscow. When Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) calls the station requesting a recording of the event, the hapless producer, Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine), attempts to restage the concert by ordering the orchestra to repeat the performance. Half the audience has left, forcing Andreyev to bring in peasants (many of them carrying baskets of fruits) to fill the seats. The pianist, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), demands a payment to participate. When the recording is finished, she insists on including in the record a note to Stalin telling him she hopes he dies. Shortly after Stalin reads the note, he suffers a cerebral hemorrhage. He’s discovered the next morning by the housekeeper. Soon members of the Central Committee begin to arrive and the jockeying for position begins.
Dermot Crowley as Kaganovich, Paul Whitehouse as Mikoyan, Steve Buscemi as Krushchev, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, and Paul Chahidi as Bulganin
A trio of committee members appears to be in line for the top job. Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi, who brings his Sopranos accent and schtick to his portrayal), makes the most of his assignment to plan Stalin’s funeral. Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), bides his time, using Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) as his puppet, hoping to eventually push him aside and become head of the Communist Party and premier. Also in the mix is Vyachheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), who had been added to the enemies list and might have met his demise if Stalin didn’t go first. Complicating matters are Stalin’s children: Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend of Homeland, who is a standout as the crazed son of the dictator).
The film plays down the bloodbath that ensued during Stalin’s reign, with lists of potential targets handed out to soldiers charged with carrying out the killings. We see citizens dragged from their homes in the middle of the night, hear gunshots, and see at least one beating with Beria using his fists on one prisoner. We can use our imagination, however, and that makes what happened even more chilling. The terror visited upon Russia’s citizens makes their homage to the fallen Stalin even more frightening. Stalin may be gone but whoever takes over may begin the killings once again. The production doesn’t hold back on pageantry, with Stalin’s funeral truly over the top and the hordes marching in the street overwhelming.
With Russia dominating the headlines these days, Iannucci’s film benefits from perfect timing. Those depicted in the film are long gone, yet threats from Russia, to our country and others, remain real. No amount of satire can make that a laughing matter.
Photos by Nicola Dove, Courtesy of IFC Films
Top photo: Steve Buscemi as Krushchev, Adrian McLoughlin as Stalin, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Dermot Crowley as Kaganovich, and Simon Russell Beale as Beria