The Death of Stalin is Armando Iannucci’s newest film, which is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. It follows dictator Joseph Stalin’s last days and the aftermath of his passing. To a certain extent, the film is historically accurate. The exceptions would be the natural exaggerations and the timespan: while onscreen the events shown take place in a few days, they unfolded over the course of nine months.
It’s a film hard to label: is it a comedy? A horror? A dark comedy? Even Ian Martin, the film’s co-writer, can’t seem to decide. He settles for ‘horror comedy’, pointing out that The Death of Stalin is a horror story with human monsters, intertwined with elements of satire. While the satire serves to heighten the terrifying incongruity of dictatorship, the gut-punching moments of silence and reflection still exist. And even though the humor sometimes came across as forced and some jokes did fall flat, the film was truly funny.
The film begins with Radio Moscow broadcasting an orchestral performance of Mozart, which Stalin demands a recording of. Shots of the grandiose concert are juxtaposed with images that depict the atrocities of the Stalinist regime: purges, mass-killings, genocide, politicide, classicide, which continue to unfurl over soothing, classical music throughout the whole film.
While this choice of editing might be considered a disrespectful way of minimizing a collective tragedy, I find that it does not only accentuate the absurdity and terror of a totalitarian regime, but it also helps shape Stalin’s persona. The choice of soundtrack (Chopin) outlines the dictator’s portrait, which is similar to the one Robert Service sketched in “Stalin: A Biography”: “Stalin was a killer. He was also an intellectual, an administrator, a statesman and party leader, a writer…” Stalin was multidimensional and feared, and Iannucci’s version of him is equally complex.
The cast is a brilliant, “all-star” cast: Steve Buscemi as Nikita Krushchev, Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria, Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov and Olga Kurylenko as Maria Yudina. Even though it’s hard to decide who the main lead is (or if there is one) Steve Buscemi steals the show by far. Is it because he’s the last man standing? I don’t think so – after all, it’s likely that any of them could have been triumphant. But he’s engaging, witty, sneaky and, as Nick De Semlyen wrote for Empire, “a verbose, nakedly ambitious weasel.”
The Death of Stalin illustrates a patriarchal, collapsing world, where an overwhelming power lies in the hands of a few vain people. The only two female characters that stand out are Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter, “his little sparrow”, the only one who was said to be capable to humanize him, and the pianist player, who appears to be the only one brave enough to stick to her beliefs. Eternally poised, she refuses to crumble in fear and she sends Stalin a note, telling him he ruined the country, which is humorously implied to be one of the causes of his death: Stalin is shown to die suddenly, struck by a cerebral hemorrhage while laughing at the note.
While his death is used to demystify him (he collapses in his office, dies wetting himself and all the other characters remark how small he is), it also emphasizes Svetlana’s personality and opposes her to her brother, Vasily.
The contrasting dynamic between Svetlana and Vasily is a sneer at a patriarchal, suffocating universe. Svetlana’s reactions to her father’s death encompass a beautiful coldness, a composed sadness, strength, elegance, instability, strictness, intelligence. Even her crying is self-possessed. On the other hand, Vasily, who should have been the perfect archetype of the strong, powerful and imposing leader, is childish, impulsive, violent and hasty. It is also implied that Svetlana was Stalin’s favourite, while Vasily is drawn as the family disappointment.
Cinematography-wise, the shaky “queasy” camera gives the film a pseudo-documentary feel, conveying a sloppy, amusing authenticity. Surprisingly, the color red, which one might have expected to be a constancy, becomes a motif only towards the end of the film, at Stalin’s funeral, where the flags, scarfs, uniforms, curtains, flowers and Stalin’s coffin are red. Otherwise, the film palette is mostly faded, grainy, which emanates a dangerous monotony.
Finally, British humor aside, the tragedy finds itself at the heart of the film. When the laughs pale, you are forced to assimilate the truth, the core of what you saw. And it’s heartbreaking.