The Death of Stalin is a black comedy and political satire directed by Armando Iannucci and co-written by Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows. The film is set in 1953 and tells the story of the struggle for power among members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union following the death of the tyrannical dictator Joseph Stalin.
Over the years, there have been some tremendous political satire films, including classics like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), as well as more recent films like 2009’s In the Loop (which I will mention again later). And with The Death of Stalin, Scottish filmmaker Armando Iannucci has created an exceptional addition to the genre, which I hope will live on among the aforementioned greats. If you have read my blog before, you will likely know that one of my favorite types of film is black comedy – as I have mentioned before, there is something captivating about the amalgamation of darkly serious issues and wickedly funny storytelling. This movie is set during an obviously horrifying time in world history – at that time in the Soviet Union, the government (led by Stalin and his cronies) was impulsively torturing and jailing its citizens, even executing many. The film is thus blunt and dark about those events, including characters insouciantly bantering about having people killed mercilessly. Luckily, the basic plot devices and dialogue are both entertaining and hilarious, which makes the film’s political satire as a whole brilliantly comedic. The cast of characters at the center of the story’s power struggle are constantly trying to get one step ahead of the others, which makes for an amusing series of loyalties and betrayals pursuant to the film’s many schemes and counter-schemes for supremacy.
At the center of this dark farce is the film’s creator, director and co-writer Armando Iannucci. As mentioned above, Iannucci is no stranger to brilliant political satire, directing and co-writing In the Loop, an outstanding satire about politics and, particularly, the political relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. This film was an instant classic and one of the best political satires of the 2000s, earning Iannucci and his co-writers an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. More recently, Iannucci is known as the creator of HBO’s Veep. He obviously has a rich background in black comedy and political satire, and his skills are radiantly on display in The Death of Stalin as he skillfully balances the film’s silliness and malevolence. To give you a taste of Iannucci’s humor, the film begins with one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema from 2018. At the start of the movie, there is a concert of classical music being performed live, with a Soviet radio station broadcasting the concert. The radio director then gets a call from Stalin’s office indicating that the dictator would like a copy of the concert’s recording and will be sending men to pick that copy up in person. There’s only one problem – the radio station was not recording the broadcast. In a frantic effort to still satisfy Stalin’s wishes, the radio director (played frenetically by Paddy Considine) attempts to stop everyone in the concert hall from leaving, explaining that they are about to have an encore performance of the entire concert. The scene is chock-full of comical dialogue, including Considine’s character hurriedly telling the audience, “take your seats, take your fucking seats,” and nervously proclaiming to everyone, “don’t worry, nobody’s gonna get killed, I promise you.” The scene is the epitome of life under Stalin’s rule, and Iannucci plays it perfectly.
The last thing I want to mention is the film’s ensemble cast, which spectacularly brings Iannucci’s vision to life. The main characters are: Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the callous and calculating chief of Stalin’s secret police force; Nikita Khrushchev, played as seemingly, but riotously, incompetent by Steve Buscemi; Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s temporary successor, depicted as spineless and unassertive by Jeffrey Tambor; Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), a seasoned diplomat in the Communist Party; and Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), an intense high-ranking official in the Societ military. The film also features wonderful supporting performances from Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough as Stalin’s adult children. One of the most noteworthy parts of the film is Iannucci’s decision to have his cast speak in their native accents. Although this technique was polarizing for film fans, I loved it and consider it one of the best things about the movie. Having the actors in Bryan Singer’s 2008 film Valkyrie speak in neutral accents rather than the German ones associated with their characters was something I found distracting because the film was an intense drama. Here, Iannucci is affirmatively striving to make a film that is darkly comedic and politically satirizing, so the actors’ use of their own accents made the entire charade that much more hysterical. The Death of Stalin is rated R for language throughout, violence, and some sexual references.
The Death of Stalin trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9eAshaPvYw