When his longtime lieutenant Lavrentiy Beria first saw the unconscious Joseph Stalin lying flat on his back, soaked in cold piss, half-dressed in pajamas on the floor of his study one winter night in 1953, he declared (à la Michael Palin in Monty Python’s parrot sketch) that the leader of the U.S.S.R. was only sleeping. What followed was one of those grotesque 20th-century comedies that were totalitarianism’s forte: conspiracies passed off as incompetence, incompetence blamed on conspiracy in a rabid tail-chase that made it hard to tell one from the other. Stalin died four days later hiccuping blood.
Per the official version, Beria stuck around for some months before he took a Makarov round point-blank to the forehead, sobbing and screaming with a rag stuffed in his mouth. His direct predecessor at the NKVD had gone more or less the same way 13 years earlier: in abject, pants-shitting terror. Nowadays, some think Beria poisoned Stalin with warfarin—a corker of comic irony, given that the U.S.S.R. was then being distracted by the Doctors’ plot, a phony conspiracy that alleged that prominent Jewish physicians were planning to poison the Soviet leadership. But Stalin had been in terrible shape for years. His personal physician had advised the dictator to retire. He was named in the Doctor’s plot, too.
Which is to say that, compared to the real thing, Armando Iannucci’s The Death Of Stalin is practically a comedy of manners. A more restrained and conventionally composed piece of filmmaking than In The Loop, the Veep creator’s hilarious low-budget satire of transatlantic politics in the Blair and Bush years, it theatrically rewrites events that transpired months and years apart into one stage-bound week of personality clashes. Much of the characterization comes down to casting: Steve Buscemi schmoozing around in a putty nose as Nikita Khrushchev; Jeffrey Tambor in buckets of nervous sweat as Stalin’s groomed successor, Georgy Malenkov; Michael Palin, the man from the parrot sketch himself, doing an uncanny rendition of Vyacheslav Molotov, the Old Bolshevik of Molotov cocktail and Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact fame.
Iannucci’s interest is verbal gymnastics and moral contortionist acts, which means no faux-Russian accents. His talky Stalinist schemers speak cockney, Brooklynese, and even Yorkshire as they bully one another around, approximating the clashing dialects and regionalisms of the real-life politburo. (Likely he’s seen Red Monarch, the early 1980s British TV movie that went a step further by having Stalin and Beria, who had thick Georgian accents, speak with Irish brogues.) The script, adapted by Iannucci, David Schneider, and Ian Martin from a French graphic novel, has its insights into the stark contrast between authoritarian ambitions and the shoddiness of life in Soviet Union under Stalin—a place where the classic trick of running water to cover up a private conversation meets its match in unreliable plumbing.
The situational humor is more varied than in In The Loop, even if it still largely comes down to a lot of people badgering each other in hallways, offices, and banquet halls. But the dialogue lacks the earlier film’s vicious, creative, lighting-fast profanity. Its theme is across-the-political-spectrum broad, even a little stale: the fine line that separates politics as usual from violent, Neanderthalian competition, presented through the power struggle between Stalin’s hand-wringing inner circle and the Mephistophelean grand inquisitor Beria (Simon Russell Beale), whose labyrinthine headquarters smack of Hades. It begins with a well-known (but likely apocryphal) story about a radio orchestra that scrambled to recreate a performance with the dissident pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) after Stalin requested a copy of a broadcast that hadn’t actually been recorded.
Literally orchestrated, the incident introduces Iannucci’s take on the totalitarian confluence of absurdity and deadly seriousness: A conductor is awkwardly summoned to the studio in his bathrobe while his neighbors are being arrested across the hall; dirty pedestrians are rounded up en masse to applaud. It’s while listening to the resulting acetate record (and reading an accusatory note from Yudina) that Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) has his cerebral hemorrhage. The politburo—Khrushchev, Beria, and the rest—start plotting as soon his unconscious body is found, competing to console the boss’s daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), while an ominous black van snatches Moscow’s last remaining doctors off the street. Stalin’s alcoholic son, Vasily, is found in an ice rink, drunkenly leading a cover-up of his own as he trains imposters to replace a hockey team that died in a horrific plane crash. (This actually happened, albeit in 1950.) The Death Of Stalin understands that totalitarianism is not only fractious, but fractal.
Malenkov, symbolically dressed in a succession of David Byrne-in-Stop Making Sense-sized Stalin suits, is in over his head as the heir apparent, browbeaten in turn by Khrushchev, Beria, and the World War II hero Georgy Zhukov (a scene-stealing Jason Isaacs). Meanwhile, Molotov, inevitably the most Python-esque character, toddles in his unshakable Stalinism, surreally faithful to the leader who signed his death warrant not long before he croaked. There’s an irony here: In the interest of dramatic expediency, Iannucci has made the power players of The Death Of Stalin look more competent and more decisive than their real counterparts. The fact that the film has been officially banned in Russia speaks, more than anything, to the bogusness of the Putin government’s national identity politics. Making fun of Russia is a Russian’s cultural obligation, and jokes about Stalinist repression—many of them bleaker than anything Iannucci and his team have come up with—are as old as Stalinism itself. Even Stalin told them.
Totalitarianism, a paranoically unstable form of government, has historically been a dark farce. Its instruments are absurdities (kangaroo courts, military parades, pseudoscience, forced confessions, altered photos, etc.), and its workings are counterintuitive and should never be taken at face value. Stalinism is especially funny. Maybe not gut-bustingly funny, but scarily funny in the sense that Raymond Chandler meant when he wrote, “It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little.” Chandler was of course writing about detective fiction. But detective fiction was one of the Soviet Union’s favorite pastimes; maybe there’s some link between the storied Russian love of whodunit novels, which goes back to Dostoevsky, and the totalitarian blame game, with its imposters, unsolved disappearances, and Byzantine plots of poisoning and sabotage.
This is what separates a totalitarian state from standard-issue dictatorship: It never promises that everything is fine, but sees vague threats everywhere. “I’ve had nightmares that made more sense than this,” mutters a character late in the film. There’s a ring of historical truth in that.