Arts+Movies » Bye Social Life, Hello Movies

Death of Stalin is a bitterly witty portrayal of the Kremlin power struggle

Scary Funny



It's 1953 and everyone's favorite brutal Soviet Union dictator Josef Vissarionovich Stalin is knocking on death's door and those nearest to him are in a panic. Unsurprisingly, the panic at the political disco has zilch to do with a fellow human dying and more to do with which sycophantic douchebag will succeed him. It was only the day before that everyone nearest him was laughing at his jokes and watching John Wayne movies with him. It was only a few hours before that he was issuing the daily sadistic orders like "Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it." It was only moments before he was listening to a live orchestral recording made especially for him by Radio Moscow.

Like Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and Elia Kazan's eerily prophetic A Face In The Crowd, Armando Iannucci's The Death Of Stalin takes satiric jabs at political dischord and the cult of personality using the power grab in the wake of Stalin's death as the linchpin. The cast of salivating characters jockeying for the coveted position are secret police leader Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and a slew of Central Committee members, including Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). As funeral arrangements are made, backs are stabbed and plots are deviously plotted while keeping Stalin's daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), and son, Vasily (Rupert Friend), as in the dark as humanly possible. Like the Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin graphic novel it's based upon, the film focuses on the pettiness, vanity, and infighting with less accent on the horror and more on any possible humor found therein. Case in point, when the cast of Americans and British deliver their dialogue in their own accents, it only heightens the sublime absurdity.

The question is, can Death of Stalin compete with our current reality? - COURTESY EONE
  • Courtesy eOne
  • The question is, can Death of Stalin compete with our current reality?

There is a particular scene that is prescient in its goofiness. When an orchestra gives a performance, the show's producer (Paddy Considine) is tasked with giving a recording of said performance to Stalin. Unfortunately for the producer, he had not committed it to vinyl. With the thought of saving his own hide from the wills and whims of a petulant toolbag, the poor gent runs out into the auditorium trying his best to keep the remaining audience members and the orchestra from leaving. With an audience now filled with peasants off the street and a very reluctant piano soloist (Olga Kurylenko), in the end, the recording is made and the producer is allowed to live another day until the next time he must cater to the dictator's impulses. The lengths the producer goes to keep Stalin happy are humorous but just disconcerting enough to give the viewer pause. It's my favorite scene in a film stocked with dark slapstick and acerbic dialogue exchanges — usually involving Khrushchev. It also best sums up The Death Of Stalin as a whole. Iannucci's film paints Stalin as a clueless, arrogant bully with a penchant for tantrums if he isn't getting his way. You wouldn't be wrong if you found yourself thinking about the current administration while watching his film. Iannucci is best known for taking the screws to Anglo-American politics in 2009's In The Loop and the hit HBO series Veep so any parallels made are completely intentional. Kudos to him for being able to mine as much humor from such a bleak reality.

Akin to Peter Capaldi's vulgar psychotic spin doctor Malcolm Tucker from In The Loop, Buscemi's Khrushchev dominates every scene whether coldly stating the facts to an upset Svetlana, delivering cranky diatribes to his contemporaries, or just muttering "Oh fuck my boots" in exacerbation.

On it's own, Death Of Stalin is a nice reminder of Iannucci's bitter wit punctuated by great moments of Buscemi being the best Buscemi out there. It's biting farcical satire that delivers on the laughs while still reminding the viewer that what we're watching is pretty scary. My only misgiving with Iannucci's latest brutal offering is not something I can pin on the film itself. The whole idea of his works is to show how silly and demented politics can be. But when your hot-headed president and a hot-headed former vice-president have essentially challenged each other to schoolyard ass-kicking, can he really compete with reality?

Death of Stalin — Starring Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, and Andrea Riseborough.

Directed by Armando Iannucci.

Related Film

The Death of Stalin

Official Site:

Director: Arnando Iannucci

Writer: Fabien Nury and Arnando Iannucci

Cast: Jason Isaacs, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Paddy Considine, Michael Palin, Jonathan Aris and Simon Russell Beale

Add a comment