Reel Talk

The Death of Stalin and the Absurdity of Power

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It’s interesting to see some creators attempt to be jack of all trades, trying out a litany of different genres of storytelling, while others decide to carve themselves out a very specific niche. They can devote their life to becoming the undisputed master of a very specific type of story, to the point that they become synonymous with it. And once such creator who appears to have taken that path is Scottish creator Armando Ianucci. Ianucci has had an illustrious career as a satirist, particularly in the world of British television, but over the past couple decades he’s really lifted himself up as the primary figure in the world of political satire. Specifically the fast-paced, quick-witted satire that he perfected with his British series The Thick of It. He then tackled American politics rather perfectly with his hit HBO series Veep, which continues to be one of the smartest, and apparently most accurate, looks at American politics currently in pop culture. I’ve loved everything I’ve seen that Ianucci has had a hand in, so when it was revealed that he was working on a new film that satirized the tumultuous time period in the Soviet Union immediately following the death of Joseph Stalin, I was obviously intrigued. Everything about the Death of Stalin, from it’s premise, to its cast, to its apparent indifference towards things like accents and visual similarity just helped keep it fascinating. It seemed like an incredibly strange experiment that easily could have fallen completely on its face, too weird to gain the momentum necessary to keep it enjoyable. But, thankfully, Ianucci is a master of the absurd, and this movie ended up being everything I could have possibly wanted it to be.

The Death of Stalin, as you could have guessed, begins with the titular death of the Soviet tyrant. The film opens up on the eve of Stalin’s death, with him hanging out with his cabinet of cronies, including Nikita Kruschev, Lavrentiy Beria, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Georgy Malenkov. They enjoy a night of drinking, cracking jokes, and ordering the deaths of dissidents, when Stalin prepares for bed by listening to a concerto recording that he forced to happen that night. But, inside the vinyl recording is a note written by the pianist of the concerto, calling him a bloodthirsty tyrant. He finds this hilarious, and begins laughing so hard that he ends up having a stroke. The next morning, when his body is discovered, the members of the cabinet are called in, and they immediately begin panicking and scheming. There are some guidelines they need to follow, which put Malenkov in charge, but they all realize how precarious their positions are, and each and every one of them begin trying to find ways to put themselves on top. Specifically Beria and Kruschev, who can’t stand each other, and are rightfully convinced that the other is trying to stab them in the back.

This then devolves into a madcap couple days where our scheming cabinet members alternate between planning Stalin’s funeral, sucking up to his daughter Svetlana, dealing with his drunken son Vasily, hiding their various crimes, and trying to come out on top. They’re all trying to curry favor between themselves, but it quickly becomes evident that no one quite likes Beria, the leader of the Soviet Secret Police. He has enough dirt on all of them to destroy their careers. Plus, he’s been behind enough deaths of the population that they all figure it’ll be a net positive if he’s taken out of the picture. Kruschev in particular wants Beria gone, since he sees him as his biggest competition, so he starts convincing the rest of the cabinet that they need to stage an immediate coup. And, when they get the head of the Russian army, Georgy Zhukov, on board things really start to pop off. They begin plotting the coup during Stalin’s funeral, and Kruschev even sets up a situation where over a thousand Russian citizens are killed by Beria’s secret police, all to provide more cause for his death. Which comes as soon as they have their first official cabinet meeting under the new regime of Malenkov. Zhukov and his soliders burst into the room, they read Beria some charges, and brutally kill him, starting a new age in the history of the Soviet Union, and a new precedent for murder being an acceptable form of succession.

 

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This film has to be seen to be believed. It’s mind-blowing to me that they were able to create one of the funniest films I’ve seen in recent years out of some truly dark subject matter. This is one of the blackest comedies I’ve ever seen, and I absolutely loved it. This film is just operating on a fascinating wave-length, and once you give yourself over to the absurdity of the film, you just get washed away by it’s hilarious weirdness. The fact that no one in this film are even attempting Russian accents or idioms can be a strange hurdle to deal with, but once you just accept the absurdity of the world you can just go for the ride. And what a ride it is. Everyone is at the top of their game in this movie, tossing out that patented Iannucci quick-witted dialogue with apparent ease, pumping out jokes and gags at a frankly shocking volume. The austere score to the film, which you’d expect from a story set in the Cold War, helps belay the wackiness of the antics going on in the film, just as the oppressive set-design helps transport us back to this bleak time in human history. The grimly regal surroundings of these characters help show just how inept and flailing they all are, all while trying to ostensibly run a country.

Which is kind of Iannucci’s whole shtick. He’s made a pretty solid career at pointing out that those in charge of the world really have no idea what they’re doing. I’ve consistently heard from real politicians that political life is far closer to Iannucci’s take than something like House of Cards. We so often assume that those in power are sober, mature people who are taking the solemn duty of governing seriously. Well, more so before the current administration. But, Iannucci is the latest in the line of satirists who like to remind us that those in power are still people, with all the insecurities and foibles that we all have. The word is a terrifying place, and it makes us feel better to think that those in charge of running it actually know what they’re doing. It makes us sleep better at night. But, people like Iannucci help remind us that that’s probably not the case. Power, especially in the form of governmental leadership, is an inherently absurd idea. We let a few people be in charge on entire nations, and just assume they know what they’re doing. So, by showing us a group of people who are supposed to be helping the Soviet Union though what is potentially its most tumultuous time possible, and showing them all to be a bunch of scheming idiots, we get a far more realistic vision of what probably happened than a straight-forward drama probably ever could have done. Things almost certainly weren’t this wacky in real life, but sadly, I feel like they were shockingly similar.

 

The Death of Stalin was written by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows, directed by Armando Iannucci, and released by IFC Films, 2018.

 

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