Film & TV

Playing Stalin for Laughs

Paul Whitehouse (second from left), Steve Buscemi, and Jeffrey Tambor in The Death of Stalin (Main Journey)
In The Death of Stalin, comedy kills, and so do bullets.

Stalinism was in many ways absurd, but how was it funny? The question is at the center of a new film that constitutes the most detailed exploration of Stalinism I think I’ve ever seen at the movies and that is also a full-on comedy. One minute, people are killing one another with sarcasm; the next it’s with bullets.

The Death of Stalin, co-written and directed by the brilliant Veep creator Armando Iannucci, combines what must have been a shelf full of historical research with put-downs like “You’re a testicle.” I admired its daring and its ambition, but though it’s well worth your time, it doesn’t entirely come off. The appearance in a supporting role of Michael Palin (as Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov) is unwise, raising as it does the suspicion that Monty Python would have done this idea better.

Adrian Mcloughlin plays Comrade Stalin, who in 1953 is hosting an amusing dinner with other Central Committee members on one of those magical evenings that can be capped only by signing a long list of death warrants. His chief executioner, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), seems to be the only man who isn’t terrified of him; “Niki” Khrushchev — played cringingly by Steve Buscemi — is so worried he goes home and makes a record of the evening, noting which jokes he made over dinner got a laugh out of Stalin and which ones didn’t. Any of the ones that didn’t, he knows, could mean execution. (No one said comedy was easy.) Another top functionary, Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), makes Khrushchev look like a model of courage, and with good reason, as he thinks he’s on “the list,” which means driving straight into a lake might be his best option this night.

When Stalin reads an angry note from a dissident pianist (former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko), he laughs himself into a cerebral hemorrhage. The security guards outside his office hear him hit the floor, but they’re too terrified to react in any way, which looks like a lesson to all aspiring mass murderers out there: At least be nice to those people who, should you fall ill, could call you a doctor.

Yet doctors there are none. No good ones, anyway: They’ve all been shot, or exiled to the Gulag. Welcome to the Empire of Irony, and so the movie goes, with one crushingly surreal detail following another, each of them a brushstroke on a vast canvas of crazy. At times, Iannucci constructs hilarious scenes around the situational nature of Soviet truth, as when, after Stalin’s death, Beria decides it’s okay to release Molotov’s wife from prison, and the apparatchiks alternately denounce and praise her depending entirely on whether they understand at any given second whether she’s off the hook or still on it. “I’ve had nightmares that made more sense than this,” one high-ranking member of the egalitarian society says.

As planning for Stalin’s funeral gets under way, Malenkov becomes Beria’s marionette while Khrushchev joins forces with top army officer Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), who is miffed that Beria’s NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) has displaced the military as heads of Moscow security. The jockeying is so intense that it’s like the Kentucky Derby if the jockeys were armed, the course was mined, and the only thing to eat afterward were the horses.

The historical drama may be interesting, but it’s one of the two main problems with the movie: Endless bickering slows things down. The Pythons had plenty of knowledge of Arthurian legend and Bible lore when they made their best movies, but they never let it fight the joke. They wore their research lightly. With Iannucci, you can sense him staggering around under the burden. (Yet, as a matter of history, the film is, no surprise here, full of inaccuracies.)

Stalin’s mustache? Funny. Stalin’s murders? Not funny.

The other problem with The Death of Stalin is the violence. Beria’s men stroll up and down his cells shooting people, and the gunshots aren’t particularly comical. Laughs can happen in close proximity to violence, but not the real, gruesome, historical kind. Stalin’s mustache? Funny. Stalin’s murders? Not funny. You have to keep the reign of terror walled off if you want to play the palace intrigue for laughs. At its peak, I think, Monty Python would have devised a caricature of Stalinism that ventured far enough from the ghastly truth to make for a wholly satisfying comedy.

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