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That Hits Despot

The Death of Stalin turns totalitarianism into hilarious dark satire.


Jeffrey Tambor and Steve Buscemi (standing) in The Death of Stalin - IFC FILMS
  • IFC Films
  • Jeffrey Tambor and Steve Buscemi (standing) in The Death of Stalin

Presenting: Monty Python's production of George Orwell's1984. Or damned close to it. SoThe Death of Stalinis akin to Terry Gilliam'sBrazil, then? Well, sort of; I definitely scribbled "Brazil" in my notes while watching. ButBrazilwas fiction—clearly inspired by actual totalitarian regimes, but entirely made up.Stalin, however, is based on terrible reality. Perhaps not since Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictatorhas a filmmaker taken on such awful personalities and events, while attempting to make us laugh about it all. Except in 1940, the atrocious extent of Hitler's crimes was not yet known. So has there ever been a film quite like this?

The audacity of writer-director Armando Iannucci is, therefore, astonishing. Even more miraculous is thatStalin actually worksas a comedy. It's outrageously funny in ways thatsometimes make you feel like you shouldn't be laughing, but you can't stop.Perhaps if anyone could pull this off, it's Iannucci, who has previously given us the television comedies VeepandThe Thick of It(which spawned the uproarious featureIn the Loop), both of which send up contemporary political shenanigans in, respectively, Washington, D.C., and Whitehall. But, again, those are fictional. And comparatively light next to the bleak maneuverings of Cold War-era Soviet muckety-mucks—men responsible for, among other things, mass murder of their own citizens.

Muckety-mucks, though. That's whyStalinsucceeds: Without minimizing the despotic horrors these men were responsible for, Iannucci exposes them as terrified weasels jockeying for position, simultaneously puffed up with authority and too scared to do anything with it lest it enrage their boss. It's the worst humanity can do: junior high school with guns.

The opening chunk offilm covers how paralyzed into inaction the dictator's inner circle becomes when they discover him on the floor of his office, apparently having had a stroke. What if he dies? Worse: What if he lives, and is upset over how they did or did not react? And after he does die—not a spoiler; it's in the title, as well as the history books—who gets to succeed him? This is a story in which for long stretches, nothing happens, but it's nevertheless momentous.

Iannucci is adapting the graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, so the gall is not all his. But the cheek to cast Steve Buscemi to play up his weirdo-trickster onscreen persona as Nikita Khrushchev? That's all Iannucci. Or Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov, a close associate of Stalin's, the man who carried out Stalin's political purges? Tambor's foppish fastidiousness is almost reminiscent of Dick Shawn in Springtime for Hitler. Or Jason Isaacs giving military honcho Georgy Zhukov an over-the-top Yorkshire accent and a bumptious sense of humor? Thatis pure Python, and it's brilliantly funny. There's even an actual Python here: Michael Palin as diplomat Vyacheslav Molotov. Ironically, Palin plays it pretty straight.

Above all, it's the absurdity of totalitarianism that is mocked—that one man could instill such terror in so many people, and often over such petty issues. Here we see Stalin, in his last public act before his stroke, ordering a recording of a Mozart concert he's just listened to live on the radio, and the reaction in the studio is both perfectly reasonable and petrifyingly outrageous: They'll just perform it again and record it. Except the conductor is so panicked that he passes out, and the revolutionary-minded star pianist (Olga Kurylenko) flat-out refuses. Oh, and half the audience has already left. How Paddy Considine's producer, Comrade Andryev, rustles up a new conductor becomes a nerve-wracking illustration of the capriciousness of fate under such rule, the stress of awaiting that ominous late-night knock on the door. The practicality with which Andryev pulls the whole thing off isa bitterly comic testament to how people survive such everyday tyranny.

It's so tempting, with a film like this, to try to connect it to the current deplorable state of politics. I wish it were easier to dismiss such a temptation. But witha capricious narcissistin the White House and, just recently, aBritish MP demandingthat universities turn over the names of professors lecturing on Brexit, and what they're teaching, it's not easy at all. Better laugh while we can.

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