Brutal, Bloody and Black Comedy - The Death of Stalin

What does it take to hold onto power? Steadfastness? A sense of duty? Or a swirling morass of scheming, in-fighting and paranoia? In The Death of Stalin it’s absolutely the latter, and it’s served up to such a degree that it makes the recent Conservative Party Conference look like a family picnic.

The Death of Stalin, based on Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel is the latest from master satirist Armando Iannucci, adapted from a French graphic novel. After skewering fictional Westminsters and Washingtons in The Thick of It and Veep, Ianucci now turns his gaze to a real-life chapter of history (and a dark one, at that).

Setting a comedy in the Soviet Union is a tough ask, what with its tendency for purges and gulags. However, Iannucci and his co-writers tread the line perfectly. His acid wit and eye for the ridiculous are very much present, but they’re blended with a striking depiction of the fear that comes with life under totalitarian rule. The opening scene, where a panic-crazed Paddy Considine has to drag peasants off the street into a concert hall so the sound levels will be to Soviet leader Stalin’s liking, sets the tone perfectly. People are rounded up by secret police; characters panic that the most innocuous comments could be twisted into proof of disloyalty; Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev covers his back by making extensive notes every night of what he’s said to Stalin.Where The Death of Stalin excels is its ability to capture the sheer absurdity of all this. Soviet Russia was brutal, but it was bloody ludicrous too.

comedy is sometimes the best means for exploring the darkest corners of our past

Every conversation is a merry-go-round of double speak; each Comrade sits somewhere between sadist and sycophant. And once their demi-God of a leader pops his clogs, his inner circle prove just how inept they are. They scramble to fill the power vacuum, but can’t even lift Stalin’s body onto a bed without falling over each other like some macabre Chuckle Brothers sketch.

There’s not a single weak link in the cast. Simon Russell Beale oozes malice as Secret Police chief Beria, while Andrea Riseborough provides welcome deadpan humour as Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana. Jeffrey Tambor’s preening successor Malenkov finds himself hilariously out of his depth, while Michael Palin’s Molotov is so cowardly that he only dares lament the exile of his wife when there’s a flushing toilet to ensure his words won’t be heard by bugs.

These characters are a blend of historical fact and caricature – they’re believable, but consistently ridiculous. Few embody this better than Jason Isaacs, who portrays war hero Georgy Zhukov with a thick Yorkshire brogue, and gnaws at the scenery like it’s mama’s finest borsch.

This all serves to create a heightened (and hilarious) reality. There are a lot of characters, a lot of talking and even more plotting, so Ianucci wisely hones in on the period immediately following Stalin’s demise, keeping the film at a trim 100 minutes. This provides just enough time for the hijinks to fade into a striking finale, reminding viewers just how serious an impact these buffoons had upon the world.

By lacing even the most fantastical farce with this stark morality, The Death of Stalin is a perfect example of how comedy is sometimes the best means for exploring the darkest corners of our past. It’s heightened, but by the end you find yourself wondering if it might not be so far from the truth after all.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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