“The Death of Stalin:” An Effective and Hilarious Satire

Armando Iannucci’s new film “The Death of Stalin” puts a comedic spin on the grapple for control of the Soviet Union following death of Josef Stalin, its longtime leader. The film, although for the most part funny, has some very disturbing qualities to it. (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

I’ve always enjoyed dark comedy, and I always will. While I didn’t appreciate it after my initial viewing, I’ve come to enjoy Armando Iannucci’s new film The Death of Stalin.

(Warning, there are spoilers below)

I was initially excited for The Death of Stalin; Soviet history is rarely touched upon in Western cinema. For once, we finally get to see what it was like at the upper echelons of Soviet society.

Upon viewing the film, I had mixed emotions about it. I thoroughly enjoyed Steve Buscemi’s (who played Nikita Khrushchev), Jeffrey Tambor’s (who played Georgy Malenkov) and Simon Russell Beale’s (who played Lavrentiy Beria) performances. Beale was especially exceptional in his acting, perfectly channelling what I figured Beria would be like: a disgusting, sneaky, and backstabbing cretin.

However, I had some trouble with how the film handled some aspects of Stalin’s regime, particularly when it came to the NKVD’s (the Soviet secret police) actions during his reign. In one scene, NKVD Chief Lavrentiy Beria gives orders to his soldiers on how to kill his victims and gives the instructions like he was ordering something off of a menu (“Shoot her before him but make sure he sees it. And this one. Kill him, take him to his church, dump him in the pulpit.”). This, in addition to the movie’s treatment of Beria’s sexual predatory behavior seemed fairly dark when compared with the theme espoused by other political satire films, such as The Great Dictator.

However, the brilliance of Iannucci’s satire trumps any feeling that the movie is too dark to be comedic. The timing of the jokes are very well done and the physical comedy in the movie is pretty great. There is one scene in the movie where the members of the Central Committee are lined up around Stalin’s catafalque in the Hall of Columns. At one point, Khrushchev and Beria engage in a game of telephone, as Khrushchev tries to figure out who invited a group of “counter revolutionary” bishops. After several rounds of this, Khrushchev suggests that he and Malenkov switch places to make communication easier, to which Malenkov says no. Then Khrushchev says he can make the switch look ceremonial, and he proceeds to step out from his place in a “dignified” manner, and shift towards Malenkov’s position. Without skipping a beat, Jeffrey Tambor (playing Malenkov) says “What the hell are you doing, go back!” This description doesn’t exactly do it justice, but rest assured the entire scene was directed very well.

Aside from the acting and writing, the movie was very well shot. I especially enjoyed the shots of actual places in Moscow, such as the Moscow State University tower and the Kremlin.

If you get the opportunity, I would highly recommend watching the The Death of Stalin.

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