The Death of Stalin is the latest work from the genius of Armando Iannucci. The man who brought us the brilliant absurdity of HBO’s Veep has crafted a truly daft history of Russian leadership in the wake of the passing of legendary monster Josef Stalin in 1953. The Machiavellian machinations of Stalin’s cabinet, including future Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev have both an authenticity and an absurdity that only a master of form and tone such as Iannucci can deliver.
The Death of Stalin features a cast stuffed with some of the most talented English actors in the world. First there is Adrian McLoughlin as Josef Stalin in his final days. McLoughlan isn’t around long, as the title would indicate, but his Stalin is nevertheless a figure of benign menace, signing off on hundreds of deaths a day of dissidents and potential dissidents while forcing his cabinet members to jockey for position in his favor.
Most prominently, there is Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) who is in deep competition with Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) for Stalin’s affections. Both of them are somehow behind the sniveling Georgi Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) in the leadership line, though each assumes they can take control of Georgi as needed to get their way. Also weighing in is Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) whose support both Beria and Khrushchev covet.
The casting is impeccable and extends to the brilliant Jason Isaacs as the head of the military, Rupert Friend as Stalin’s drunken, moronic son, Vasily, and Olga Kurylenko as a dissident pianist who plays a key role in the plotting between Khrushchev and Beria. Her role isn’t large but Kurylenko invests it with passion. She along with Andrea Riseborough, playing Stalin's daughter, are the only women in the movie and both are inspired choices for their roles.
The trick of The Death of Stalin is the tricky tone of the script which feels at once authentic and absurd. The key is finding the absurd within the authentic and Iannucci does that brilliantly, especially with an opening gag involving another brilliant character actor, Paddy Considine. As the film opens, Comrade Stalin is listening to a live performance on Moscow radio of a live band. Stalin decides he wants a recording of the performance but the performance had not been recorded.
Immediately we sense how dangerous this moment is for Considine. It’s all in structure. We’ve seen Stalin’s death lists being signed and death squads being spread across the city. Considine’s producer has been told without it being said that if he can’t reproduce the broadcast he will be killed. So, he kidnaps what’s left of the audience and the band and sets about having the concert performed again under the threat of death for everyone from the band to the ignorant citizens Considine wrangles off the streets to fill in for missing audience members.
It’s a masterfully dark gag and one that sets the darkly humorous tone for what is to come in The Death of Stalin. Iannucci appears to take many parts of this story quite seriously and allows the absurdity to arise from the bizarrely dire circumstances. Take Palin’s Molotov, a brilliantly doddering character, Molotov praised Stalin for seeming to have murdered his wife only t have her returned to him alive by Beria who has kept her under wraps just in case he needed her to bargain.
The scene where she is returned is a Noises Off style gag wherein Khrushchev arrives at his home to scheme against Beria only to have Beria show up and just as Molotov is talking about how his wife deserved to die for criticizing Stalin, she is brought in the door and he welcomes her home, only to then make a running gag about how she deserved the fate that Stalin had assigned her even as he’s happy she’s home.
My description doesn’t do justice to Pailin’s brilliantly absurd performance. He along with Buscemi are truly stand outs in this ridiculously talented ensemble. The two of them appear to have been ready built for Iannucci’s ingeniously dark and hysterical style of storytelling. Buscemi is particularly adept a switching from comedy to seriousness at the drop of a hat and without losing the complex rhythm of the story.
The Death of Stalin is now available to stream on Amazon.