I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like The Death of Stalin, Veep creator Armando Iannucci’s new film about the farcical machinations of Stalin’s inner circle after the dictator’s sudden death in 1953. Don’t be fooled by the serious title: this is social and political satire at his sharpest, loosely based on real events but also exactly right about much more than its subject.
In the film, Stalin’s surprising death sets his cronies scrambling on how to appear to honor their beloved leader while also scheme to seize his power. One contender is future Premier Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), probably the most well-known name of the group. The other is Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), chief of the Soviet secret police and power-hungry instrument of the widespread purges, executions, and violent repression of that era. Jeffrey Tambor and Michael Palin are other highlights of the excellent cast, and Jason Isaacs nearly steals the movie as Georgy Zhukov, the brash Red Army commander.
Shot and lit almost like a stage play, the film is a black comedy of manners, with men trying to save face and save their own lives while jockeying for position. As all this happens in Stalin’s country dacha or palatial government buildings, when we do venture outside the halls of power we see the brutal reality of life in a totalitarian regime for regular people: being tortured in a gulag, say, or being forced to reenact an entire symphony for Stalin’s pleasure.
This juxtaposition—“slapstick horror” as Manohla Dargis called it—is jarring but somehow sings. It’s like an extended episode of Veep if Selina Meyer had been a repressive dictator. The laughs don’t come at the expense of the true victims but in response to how the Committee members struggle with their darkly absurd circumstances, like what to do with Stalin’s soiled, unconscious body, or how to communicate with each other while standing guard during Stalin’s funeral and trying to appear stately while doing so.
Though Stalin himself isn’t a prominent character in the film, even in death he looms over everything and everyone, affecting every choice or non-choice these bureaucrats wrestle with, the way the paranoid authoritarian and his regime of senseless violence really did.
The real Khrushchev later reflected in his memoirs about the horrors of this time:
Stalin called everyone who didn’t agree with him an “enemy of the people.” He said that they wanted to restore the old order, and for this purpose, “the enemies of the people” had linked up with the forces of reaction internationally. As a result, several hundred thousand honest people perished. Everyone lived in fear in those days. Everyone expected that at any moment there would be a knock on the door in the middle of the night and that knock on the door would prove fatal … [P]eople not to Stalin’s liking were annihilated, honest party members, irreproachable people, loyal and hard workers for our cause who had gone through the school of revolutionary struggle under Lenin’s leadership. This was utter and complete arbitrariness. And now is all this to be forgiven and forgotten? Never!
We’ve heard about the banality of evil, but the capriciousness of evil, to me, is just as destructive, if not more so. Regimes that rule through fear and paranoia and unpredictability create a living nightmare for everyone, not just the people thrown in jail.
The Death of Stalin enters that nightmare and tries to expose it with the harsh light of humor. Iannucci does stretch his artistic license to the max, condensing the factual historical timeline and giving the main characters a variety of English accents. But by doing so he’s able to honor the absurdity of this true story and bring it into the 21st century in a seriously funny way.