IT WAS THE German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt who explored the evils and absurdities of autocracy when she wrote Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951. But those who know nothing of Arendt or her work will at least recognise the phrase “banality of evil”, which was the subtitle of Arendt’s second book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt suggests not that evil itself is banal, but that often those who do evil do so for non-ideological and entirely prosaic reasons.
Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin brings this idea to the big screen in a highly effective and blackly comic way by casting the Soviet leader’s inner circle not as fanatics or sociopaths in the image of, say, Schindler’s List’s Nazi concentration camp commandant Amon Göth, but as distinctly ordinary people driven mainly by a vague desire to get ahead. The Death of Stalin might chronicle the “Soviet power struggles occasioned by the death of dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953,” as someone or other has described it, but it also tells the story of a pint-sized lunatic and the bumbling entourage trying to profit from his sudden demise.
The Death of Stalin might chronicle the “Soviet power struggles occasioned by the death of dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953,” as someone or other has described it, but it also tells the story of a pint-sized lunatic and the bumbling entourage trying to profit from his sudden demise.
The film is an adaptation of Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel of the same name, in which the sudden death of the titular dictator prompts the members of the Soviet Central Committee––Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and others––to try to seize power for themselves. None of this takes place, however, until after an amusing opening scene featuring Paddy Considine; he plays a troubled radio producer forced to tell an exhausted orchestra that they must re-perform a piano concerto because Stalin wants a gramophone recording of the event. (The mere mention of Stalin leads to a sudden outburst of lengthy and nervous applause among those in the audience).
The film is almost impossibly well cast but nevertheless two actors in particular steal the show: Simon Russell Beale, who plays Beria and simply seems to ooze wickedness, and Rupert Friend, whose turn as Stalin’s good-for-nothing drunk of a son, Vasily, is nothing short of hilarious. The former brings a deliciously dark edge to the film, even if the way in which he goes about his evildoing is so wearisome and routine (“kill her first but make sure he sees it,” he sighs) that it’s funny.
Simon Russell Beale, who plays Beria and simply seems to ooze wickedness, and Rupert Friend, whose turn as Stalin’s good-for-nothing drunk of a son, Vasily, is nothing short of hilarious.
Iannucci, who has forged a career out of showing people in power to be, essentially, incompetent clowns, takes his game to the next level, so to speak, by grappling with one of history’s most brutal and bloody regimes. The mood he creates is simultaneously Pythonesque––Michael Palin’s presence does help on that front, of course––and bleakly satirical (Iannuccian?). It has all the hallmarks of something made by the man behind The Thick of It and Veep, only in The Death of Stalin, the price of political incompetence is more likely to be a bullet in the back of a head than national obloquy. It’s for this reason that it’s made a fair few people upset, and when you consider the treatment of Hitler’s final days in the bunker in print and on screen, you can at least see what they’re grasping at. That said, you can’t help feeling that only a Trappist monk could make it through the first forty-five minutes without at least cracking a smile.
The Death of Stalin’s weakest act is its third, at which point plot, necessarily, perhaps, completely overwhelms comedy to bring the film to its conclusion. But it’s worth watching for the first three quarters of an hour alone, to say nothing of its frantic middle section, when Jason Isaacs, apparently channelling Sean Bean of all people, steals scene after scene after scene as the leader of the Red Army, Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov.