The Death of Stalin

Robert Henderson

Directed by Armando Iannucci

Based on the comic book  Death of Stalin by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin

Main Cast

Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov –Deputy General Secretary

Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev  – General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union

Olga Kurylenko as Maria Yudina – pianist whose family has fallen foul of  the Soviet regime

Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov – Foreign Minister

Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria  – NKVD head

Paddy Considine as Comrade Andreyev – the head of the radio station

Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana Stalina  – Stalin’s daughter

Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin – Stalin’s son

Jason Isaacs as  Marshall  Georgy Zhukov  – the leader of the Red Army

Adrian Mcloughlin as Joseph Stalin

Paul Whitehouse as Anastas Mikoyan  – Vice-Premier of the Council of Ministers

Paul Chahidi as Nikolai Bulganin  – deputy premier and minister of defence

Dermot Crowley as Lazar Kaganovich   – Minister of Labour

Running time

107 minutes[1]

If an entire  society can become a lunatic asylum Stalin’s  Russia was  that society.  Imagine a world in which the present  is  at the forefront of your mind all the time.  No one is  safe. The most slavish devotion to  the party line and Comrade Stalin did not guarantee your  safety for the party line might change from day to day or an informer  tell a lie about  you  or simply recount an unguarded remark  you made.   If  a person said as little as possible that might be taken as a  sign that  they were secretly disloyal; if they made a great display of loyalty it could be interpreted as a subterfuge to disguise their revisionist or worse counterrevolutionary  true self. Being a senior  member of the Party  did not make someone  any safer  than a peasant and indeed  probably  made you more vulnerable to being executed, for few were the  senior Bolsheviks  from the  revolutionary days  who died of old age. It was a madhouse in which rationality  and consistency were dangerous  traits  because the norm was  a trembling neurosis  focused only on the immediate present and its precarious nature.   Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon captures the general atmosphere  of the  time and place well.

It is important to take this historical reality  on board before seeing the film because there is much in it which would otherwise  seem absurd. The reality of Russia under Stalin’s rule was every  bit as  chaotic as the film’s depiction of it. Pathological paranoia was the norm and never more fevered was it  than in the  last years of Stalin’s life.

The Death of Stalin   manages to be both funny and sinister. It is tragi-comedy with the emphasis heavily on the comedy.   Imagine The lives of others with jokes. The all pervasive  fear  is  brought home  as the film opens. It  begins with a  Mozart  recital  being broadcast by Radio Moscow.  The performance ends and the head of the radio station (Paddy Considine) has a call from  Comrade Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin )who requests a  recording of the performance.   But the recital has not been recorded and panic breaks out as Considine frenziedly sets about arranging for the concert to be performed again despite the fact that many of the audience have left,  the pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko  ), a  woman with a  grudge against Stalin because of what has happened to her family, is reluctant to perform a second time  and the  conductor faints and   injures himself so seriously he  cannot conduct the second recital and a new conductor has to be  hurriedly found from those who have just been sentenced to the Gulag or worse.  Superficially this is Keystone Cops but the palpable fear turns the scene serious.

Stalin receives the recording but  a note from Maria Yudina  has been slipped into the record sleeve. This  lambasts Stalin for what he has done to the country. Stalin laughs  but this brings on a  brain haemorrhage which renders him speechless and immobile.  Those close to Stalin call for the best doctors to  be   brought  to treat him from motives which include  fear that he may recover and they be found wanting in getting him medical help if they just leave him to die, fear of what will follow if he does die or in the case of his housekeeper  simply  genuine concern for him. But there is a problem:  because of the so-called doctors plot all  the best doctors have been executed, sent to the Gulag or exiled.   A few of the disgraced doctors are hurriedly brought back to Moscow  but Stalin dies. Then the fun starts as the Central Committee members begin to manoeuvre either for power themselves  or simply to keep themselves safe.

It is rare when a film with a decent sized cast has no duds.  This is one of the rarities. The film  has one of the great film monsters in the shape of the head of the  NKVD  Lavrentiy Beria (Philip Russell Beale ) and probably the most feared man in Russia  after Stalin.  Beale is a compelling  actor and here he has a coach and four  to drive as hard as he wants in the villain stakes.  Looking  like a  cross between Mr Toad and a  Humpty Dumpty  laced with venom,  he dominates the film. Throughout he is a buzzing manipulator moving from one senior member of the Central Committee to another, his mere presence being a threat.  His scheme is to use Malenkov as a shield behind which he can pitch for ultimate power himself. Eventually  Beria overreaches himself by becoming too directly threatening and suffers the same arbitrary  injustice  he has meted out to others, being shot immediately after a  “trial” and his body burnt where it lay.

The real Beria was  an  especially nasty  piece of work.  Sadists with real power   are bad news at any time and Beria was one of the worst.  Not only did he have people killed without conscience ,  he liked to torture them  mentally and physically.  Suppose that  a husband and wife were to be shot, Beria  would ensure that the wife was shot first in front of the husband. Beria also had a great appetite  for rape which he indulged by taking  wives and daughters of “factionalists”, “revisionists,  or “counterrevolutionaries ”, factionalists or any other woman who took his  fancy  and could be arrested as an enemy of the state or otherwise manipulated.

Steve Busceni as Krushchev  has  the meatiest part after that of  Beria and carries it well, as a man who if seriously tainted by the horrors of Stalin’s time    is  more realistic  about the realities of human nature than most of those  who served and survived Stalin.  He acts with the minter of labour   Lazar Kaganovich   (Dermot Crowley  )  to thwart Betria, most notably by countermanding Beria’s orders that trains shall not ruin to Moscow and that the Red Army be kept in barracks leaving the NKVD to control the streets.

Michael Palin is a marvellous Molotov, the great  Soviet   survivor who outlasted the purges of the 1930s and died at the fag end of Soviet Rule  aged  ninety-six,  a man who so completely bought into the need  to be subordinate that he pathetically applauds the imprisonment of his wife  as being the “right thing”. He is a man to whom things happen, a leaf blown in the wind. Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov  is a  nonentity  who nonetheless  gets some delusions of authority from the fact  he is the deputy first secretary  and thus legally, if one could use such a term about the Soviet Union,  Stalin’s successor.

Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana Stalina  – Stalin’s daughter – manages to be both paranoid and strangely innocent;  Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin – Stalin’s son – is a boorish drunken   incompetent  lacking any  distinction other than being Stalin’s son.

Isaacs’  Marshall Zhukhov (the head of the Soviet army)  is a splendidly swaggering  absurdity with his torso covered more by medals than the cloth of his uniform  who announces his presence with “Right, what’s a war hero got to do to get some lubrication around here?” But the bombastic  Zhukhov is the key to preventing Beria from   gaining power because it is only when he agrees to back the overthrow of Beria (providing all the other members of the Central Committee agree)  that the act can take place.

The moment which got the biggest laugh from the  cinema audience I was part of  was  a wind up of  Krushchev   by   Marshall Zhukov.  They are having a private conversation and Krushchev  suggests   that Zhukov  should  join him and other Soviet leaders in a bid to seize  power  and do for Beria. .  Zhukov responds with  “ I’m going to have to report this conversation, threatening to do harm or obstruct any member of the Presidium in the process of…”  Krushchev looks terrified  until Zhukov bursts a out laughing and says  with delight  “ look at your fucking face!”  But there are plenty of other genuinely funny moments including the chaos of the organisation of Stalin’s funeral which Beria has manoeuvred Khrushchev into organising with the intention of neutralising him while Beria attempts to seize power.

This is indubitably the film I have most enjoyed in 2017.  Don’t rob yourself of a treat by missing it.

 

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Comments

  • Phillip Aspinall  On January 21, 2018 at 5:29 pm

    After that review I see the film in a different light and will definitely watch it now. Thanks.

  • Tony Rice  On January 21, 2018 at 6:23 pm

    I knew the person well who had the news first of Stalin’s death, 3 days before the official announcement, and which he supposedly told his work mates in Napier’s aircraft factory in Acton.

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