The Death of Stalin is a Dark Joy

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There’s an old Russian joke: What happens when you put a group of conniving, sycophantic, power-hungry, self-serving, ruthless, frightened, nasty men together in a room?

Alright, there is no joke. Let’s try again.

What happens when filmmaker Armando Iannucci (In the Loop, Veep, Thick of It) puts the above Gang of 7 into a suite of rooms and adds the poisoning presence of Joseph Stalin, both as a living, John Wayne loving, Mozart appreciating, mass murderer, and as a corpse, ripe for peasant grieving, and soviet secretaries’ scheming?

What you get is a very dark comedy that walks the trapeze line between pain and laughter, between mockery and uncomfortable humor, between moral repugnance and a very squeamish empathic recognition. You get satire of the darkest hue. You get The Death of Stalin, which really does feel like a dangerous feat accomplished admirably well.

As both his body of work and his interviews attest to, Iannucci is a political junkie. He is endlessly fascinated with the machinations of statecraft and can rattle off the names of politicos the way some fans can list every New England Patriot to wear the uniform. But what most fascinates him are those patriots that have gone terribly afoul, both the incompetents and the sharks. And here, at the end of Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) reign of terror and the introduction of Nikita Khrushchev’s (Steve Buscemi) Cold War Soviet Empire, he finds plenty of both.

It all begins with a Mozart Piano Concerto, a piece of gentle and sublime beauty, that, as is typical with Iannucci, only lasts a few moments before it becomes an element in a scene about both political fear and survivalism and personal courage on the part of the pianist.

It’s best to enjoy that moment of courage because it is the last you’ll see. For the next two hours it’s going to be one summary execution, urine or blood soaked carpets, and acts of political backstabbing, blackmailing, and pedophilia enacted behind closed doors or recorded in dossiers after another. And that’s just the first hour. We can look forward to brain removals and more in the second hour. So, how could all of this be funny?

It begins with a flawless cast, including a welcomed return by Monty Python’s Michael Palin and knockout performances by both Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale as Khrushchev’s nemesis, whose mixed nationalities and accents make this as much about the world today and forever, as about Russia in 1953.

Also, the script’s ceaseless barbs, fumbling excuses, whispered terrors and conspiracies, childish tantrums all seem perfectly plausible given the characters and situations, but they are also devilishly wicked. (As an aside, Iannucci’s Olympian talent at writing the most vulgar and poetic swearing is not on the scene in this period piece) But what makes it all come together is the deadpan delivery. Not for a moment does he grant the characters a chance to wink and nod, nor himself to rest on his laurels or his easy targets. These are horrible times and these men are a truly pathetic and awful confederacy of dupes and dictators, but the mayhem continues and the men take themselves awfully seriously.

And that will work for some viewers and not for others. For some, this will not be a comedy, nor will it be a drama. It will be something unclassifiable and even off-putting. For the current Russian state, it is very classifiable: It’s been condemned and banned. Though, I personally didn’t care for it as much as I like all of his other work, for those with a taste for the underbelly of political satire, done relentlessly and ruthlessly, you’ll enjoy Stalin’s death. Cue the Mozart.