Directed by: Armando Iannucci
Premise: A historical comedy about the death of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin. Following his passing, members of the Soviet Council of Ministers scramble to forge alliances and assume political power.
What Works: The Death of Stalin was directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci. He is best known as the creator of the HBO television series Veep. This film has a similar feel to that show and it mixes drama and humor in much the same way. The Death of Stalin is a dark comedy. The stakes of the story are high; these characters are very literally fighting for their lives and the future of a nation hangs in the balance. This is also a story populated with awful people. Stalin was a monster and no one in the Council of Ministers is a good human being but there are shades of terribleness with some of the ministers worse than others. The Death of Stalin takes that inherently serious material and then makes something funny out of it. The picture is an impressive study in the management of tone. What Iannuci and his cast and crew find funny isn’t the human rights abuses or the cold blooded murder of Russian citizens. What they do find funny is the absurdity of life in a totalitarian state and the fickle nature of politics and power. While Stalin is alive everyone in Russia is paralyzed with fear knowing that merely displeasing Uncle Joe could lead to a late night execution. No one is more aware of that than the minsters who fall over themselves to placate Stalin and stay in his good graces. Even when Stalin is dead the characters continue to defer to his memory, a testament to how thoroughly they’ve been terrorized by this man, and then begin plotting against each other while talking publically about duty and patriotism. The Death of Stalin plays on that deceit and hypocrisy and it is very funny. And like any good historical film, the movie’s dramatization of history speaks to issues beyond its particular historical anecdote. This story dramatizes the fragility of power in a totalitarian state and the ways in which political terror shapes the way we behave.
What Doesn’t: The Death of Stalin does not require a deep understanding of Soviet history. The movie has a limited number of characters and the relationships between them are well defined so that anyone ought to be able to follow what’s happening. However, it probably helps to have some foreknowledge of who these people are, especially Joseph Stalin, and an understanding of the bigger implications of the film’s power struggle. It’s also worth pointing out the strange confluence of accents in The Death of Stalin. The movie takes place in Russia and most of its characters are Russian citizens but this is also a British comedy starring mostly British actors and the majority of the cast speak with an English accent. However, Jeffrey Tambor and Steve Buscemi speak with their natural American accents.
DVD extras: Deleted scenes, featurettes.
Bottom Line: The Death of Stalin is a sardonic comedy that is wickedly funny but also quite smart. The film approaches its subject matter with a perfect mix of seriousness and humor and The Death of Stalin is both uproariously funny—except when it’s not—and politically unsettling.
Episode: #724 (November 4, 2018)