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Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin steps back in time to March 1953. The Russian winter has lasted a quarter of a century. Joseph Stalin, who prides himself a music connoisseur, has just heard a live radio broadcast featuring pianist Maria Yudina, and is so taken with her playing that he calls the station for the recording. There isn’t one.
The desperate station manager recalls Yudina and the orchestra, gets a conductor out of bed (who assumes he’s been arrested), and dragoons a street crowd to refill the hall. The fresh performance is rushed posthaste to Stalin, who’s annoyed by the delay; is amused by the note from Yudina that accompanies it, denouncing him for murdering her family; and promptly collapses with a stroke.
Stalin died hours later. The film suggests that his Politburo, paralyzed by fear of reprisal should he recover (his final purge, the so-called Doctors' Plot, targeted physicians accused of poisoning their patients) left him unattended until it was too late. His minions, who had long anticipated the succession struggle, were both relieved and terrified at his death. They would not die at Stalin’s hands — but they might die at each other’s.
They walk among us
Iannucci could have made grim drama out of this. Still recovering from the wounds of World War II and confronting U.S. might, the Soviet Union could not afford a bloody contest for power. Iannucci, however, isn’t interested in historical context; he sees black comedy instead, a bunch of toadies scrambling over a corpse.
The major players are Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Stalin’s reviled hangman who wants to rule by terror, and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), the moderate reformer who seeks to block him. In between sits hapless Gyorgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), a second-rater thrust into the Politburo’s chairmanship, forced to take sides when Khrushchev recruits blustering war hero Gyorgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs).
Each character is repulsive in his own way, but Beria (whom Stalin actually feared; Beria later boasted of killing him) is clearly the major villain. Iannucci’s casting deliberately plays against type: Khrushchev was an earthy peasant, whereas Steve Buscemi, physically and temperamentally the last person you’d imagine playing him, is a bundle of nerves. Beria, a thin, spectacled intellectual, is portrayed by fat, balding Beale. The point is that these protagonists are intended as types, underlings who scrap for power whenever a dictator falls.
Iannucci takes similar liberties with timelines and events. Beria’s fall played out over many months, but here he is brought down within a few days of Stalin’s death: punched out by Zhukov and dragged out immediately to be shot.
The joke's on you
Adrian McLoughlin’s Stalin seems puny for a feared dictator, and his cowering henchmen, standing over him, are struck at last by how small he seems.
The dead Stalin must, however, be brought back to superhuman stature in his state funeral, lest the myth of the Great Leader be impugned. Even within the Politburo, doublethink has so long prevailed that one of its members believes his falsely imprisoned wife is actually an enemy of the state. When she is released, he does not know whether to embrace or denounce her. This, then, is the true legacy of Stalinism: even when the truth is told, it is impossible to believe.
Making satire of this, as Orwell did in 1984, is fair enough, but Iannucci too often lapses into ridicule and farce, which doesn’t work when the backdrop is actual tragedy. The real agenda here, as he has noted in interviews, is his personal outrage that Stalin is still a hero to many in contemporary Russia.
This, in turn, reflects the new Cold War between Russia and the West and the general global rise of authoritarian leadership. The succession struggle after Stalin produced the check on tyrannical authority known as collective leadership, as did a similar episode in China after the death of Mao. Those checks have since collapsed in both countries, and their equivalents are now at risk in major Western democracies. That isn’t funny at all.
What, When, Where
The Death of Stalin. Written by Armando Iannucci and David Schneider. Armando Iannucci directed. Philadelphia-area showtimes.
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