When Stalinists Collide

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There is a newly released movie called The Death of Stalin. It’s not really about Stalin or his death, but you should see it anyway. One reason is that it’s been banned in Russia; the other, much more important reason, is that it’s really good and really entertaining (in a really grim way).

Stalin does appear for a few minutes at the start of the film, where we see him as a drunken clod with a low sense of humor and a proclivity for intimidating and boring his colleagues. Like Hitler, he forces people to stay up all night watching B movies from Hollywood. Then he dies, and the real story begins, as the second and third bananas battle one another to capture his authority. The movie is about the difficult process of redistributing power in an ideological regime that has become a personal regime and is now becoming a regime of bureaucrats. First came the Idea (communism); then came the Man (Stalin); now we have the Men, the party hacks and the heads of this or that, who survived long enough to start asserting their own personalities. We get to see what those personalities are, once asserted, and to study their grisly and comic clashes.

First came the Idea (communism); then came the Man (Stalin); now we have the Men, the party hacks and the heads of this or that, who survived long enough to start asserting their own personalities.

The lead actors are remarkably skillful at entering their roles and projecting them. Simon Russell Beale, playing Lavrentiy Beria, head of the secret police, succeeds in making Beria seem what he was, one of the most repulsive figures of history. Jeffrey Tambor, playing Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s presumed successor, presents Malenkov as a man who, if you don’t like Woodrow Wilson, looks and acts exactly the way you imagine Woodrow Wilson looked and acted. Jason Isaacs, playing Marshal Zhukov, conqueror of Berlin, demonstrates that absurdly over-the-top masculinity still has its dramatic interest. Steve Buscemi, the star of the show, plays Nikita Khrushchev as the smartest and most complicated and most interesting of them all.

This is stage-play politics, but it might actually have been politics in the stagy totalitarianism that was the Soviet Union. Some of the characterizations do seem questionable to me. Stalin was not the overt fool that we see in Adrian McLoughlin’s performance (which no doubt responded to Armando Iannucci’s direction). Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), doesn’t seem rigid and doctrinaire enough, nor as constantly devoted to his insanely doctrinaire wife as Molotov actually was. (Stalin sent Madame Molotov to the gulag, but this did nothing to reduce her devotion to him.) I don’t know whether Svetlana Stalin was the way Andrea Riseborough (and the script) portrays her — a goofy, spoiled, adult brat — but I would have enjoyed watching her performance for much longer than the movie’s run time.

Simon Russell Beale succeeds in making Beria seem what he was, one of the most repulsive figures of history.

And here’s something strange. If you deplore, as I do, the creepy foreign accents that non-English speakers are given in Anglophone movies, there’s none of that in this film — everyone speaks with some kind of British accent. Yet hearing Stalin speak like a working-class Brit was startling to me, and the other people’s speech was only slightly less startling. That’s probably because I’m an American, so it all seemed foreign to me — but in a strangely displaced way. Yet that’s what’s supposed to happen on stage, isn’t it — some kind of strange displacement? The strangeness makes you conscious that you are watching someone else’s conscious performance, a re-creation of human life in which your own imagination needs to be involved.

So, for many reasons: if this film has already left your theater, make a note to see it when it comes out on DVD and other means of presentation.

Finally, here’s a SPOILER. Look away if you’re not ready for it.

Khrushchev wins in the end.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Death of Stalin," directed by Armando Iannucci. Main Journey-Quad Productions, 2017, 107 minutes.



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Comments

Joe from Florida

Loved the movie a lot like the real thug Stalin. Liked Steve Buscemi as Mr. K. and Michael Palin as Molotov.

Jo Ann

Thanks, Stephen, for this funny and dead-on review of the deadly funny "Death of Stalin." Banned in Russia? It should be required viewing in America. (Oh, wait — requirement is the Russian way. It should be highly recommended in America.) And maybe it will make it into some high school curricula, if only because it is so funny — and an easy way to knock out a couple of class sessions. The movie would be a great companion to Jack Benny's "To Be or Not To Be."

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