The Death of Stalin

‘Comedy is tragedy plus time,’ says Alan Alda’s character in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours. And later, ‘if it bends it’s funny, if it breaks it’s not funny.’

For various reasons I was in Moscow in 1957, shortly after Kruschchev assumed power and at about the time that Molotov was shot. Which is to say that the events portrayed in Armando Iannucci’s new film are within living memory; which is my only problem with his film.

I’m not precious about comedy or bad taste; there are few topics which I would regard as off-limits but with one caveat – it must be funny. James Corden’s ill-judged ‘jokes’ about Harvey Weinstein had two main faults – it was too soon but worst of all; his jokes weren’t funny. Iannucci’s film has that second saving grace – it is very funny. However, there is a difference between satire – his film doesn’t make fun of the events of Stalin’s death, so much as find the events themselves funny and there’s a subtle but crucial difference.

The film is swiftly summarised; it charts the hours leading up to, and the hours, days and weeks following Stalin’s stroke and subsequent death. The main characters are the leading members of Stalin’s politburo – weak and malleable Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), brutal Beria (Simon Russell Beale), fawning Molotov (Michael Palin), the arch-plotter Krushchev (Steve Buscemi), joker Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse) and Marshall Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). While Stalin is alive, we see them hang on his every word (sometimes literally), fawning at his every utterance and laughing at every joke (Buscemi as Krushchev has his wife write down every joke he makes in Stalin’s company so he will know in future what topics Stalin finds funny) and following his protracted death we see them plotting how to fill the gaping hole in their future.

The cast is uniformly excellent. The stand-out character and performance for me was Paul Whitehouse’s Mikoyan. His is not a major role but his character is most believable. He comes across as a true working class boy made good, like an old-style union leader. And he has the funniest line – ‘fuck me, I’m knackered’ he says at the end, ‘it’s been a long week.’ As Beria’s ashes are shovelled into a heap.

At times the film – like the Stalin regime – is brutal, terrifying, horrifying and casually and routinely cruel. We see innocent people dragged from their beds and summarily executed; prisoners in gulags are shot where they stand against a wall, innocent civilians are mown down in the streets. Following Stalin’s death, the NKVD move in and all the staff from Stalin’s dacha are dragged away and shot.

Lavrenti Beria – Head of the NKVD (secret police and forerunner of the KGB) – is a terrifying character; utterly grotesque, immoral and totally without scruple. He hands out lists of people to be killed; ‘shoot this man’s wife first,’ he says, ‘and make sure he sees it.’ After Stalin’s death, the other members of the politburo turn on him and he is dragged into a shed, summarily tried and shot in the head. The other members then stand around as a soldier pours petrol on his body and they watch him burn in the back yard of the Kremlin. And this is a comedy? Beria was responsible for the death of thousands of people and the rape of hundreds of women; should we cheer as he gets his just desserts or mourn the lack of due process? So many of his victims were denied a fair trial; should his fate be any different?

The film is superb at portraying the utter madness of the period. All the good doctors have been executed on Stalin’s orders, so who can they find to treat his haemorrhage? Eventually, they round up a strange assortment of the old, the young, the sick and the mad who together decide if Stalin is alive or dead. The film starts with a very funny episode. Stalin is listening to a live performance of a Mozart concerto on the radio and telephones the studio to demand a recording of it. But it has not been recorded. So, the director has to persuade the orchestra and pianist to perform it again so that he can record it. The conductor falls and bangs his head so another conductor is found and dragged from his bed still wearing his dressing gown, while his neighbours are being dragged from their beds and shot in the street. Half of the audience has left so, in order to re-create the sound of the audience that Stalin heard, drunks and waifs and strays and other people are dragged in off the street.

In a world that is insane, the film seems to say, the only (relatively) safe way to be is insane too. And so a collective madness overwhelms the state, the poilitburo, the army, all terrified of transgressing the unwritten law. It wasn’t just the presence of Michael Palin as Molotov that reminded me of the Doug and Dinsdale Piranha sketch from Monty Python. ‘He nailed my head to the floor.’  ‘Why? What had you done?’ ‘I don’t know, he didn’t tell me that. But I deserved it.’

Maybe Iannucci is playing a clever game of double bluff. ‘Look at you,’ he says, ‘you’re laughing at this but this isn’t funny. This happened, this is real life.’ But I don’t think so. Iannucci is following Alan Alda’s rules – he thinks enough time has passed and if it bends, it’s funny. I’m still uncertain about the time span – I was alive when Molotov died – but the film does bend. But I can’t help thinking; would he make a comedy about the holocaust? About Hitler’s last days – Goebbels poisoning his seven children, Hitler and Eva Braun blowing their brains out as the luckless Berliners are raped and pounded by Zhukov’s Red Army?

The script by Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows is excellent and gratifyingly, the actors do not try and talk with Russian accents but talk in their normal voices – so Buscemi and Tambor are American, Paul Whitehouse sounds like Paul Whitehouse, Palin sounds like a Monty Python character, and so on. The sets are fabulous and I loved the clothes – great big, baggy, shapeless ’50s suits and a wonderful over-the-top uniform dripping with medals and braid for Marshall Zhukov.And just like The Thick of It, it is gloriously and wonderfully sweary.

I loved the film. I laughed – a lot, although not quite as much as some of the people in the cinema. It never reaches the biting, bitter heights of satire as portrayed in The Thick of It and Beria, for all his grotesqueness, is still not as horrible a character as Malcolm Tucker. But maybe every generation and every country gets the Beria it deserves – so in our current Tory cabinet of unscrupulous fools and bastards, who’s ours?


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