The Death of Stalin Pits Fear Against Humor

Christopher Maher: Today: The Death of Stalin. I’m joined by fellow reviewer Jason Potel to discuss Armando Iannucci’s newest flick. Did you see it at Alamo Drafthouse? Maybe you were in the theater while I was buying my ticket.

As you may have guessed, The Death of Stalin focuses on the the events leading up to and then following… the death of Stalin. After the General Secretary’s death at the hands of a laughing fit, his many letuinants (introduced with small title cards during or shortly after their first appearance) jockey for power. Chief among them are Moscow Party Head Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and the head of the NKVD, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the latter of whom plans to make Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) the new General Secretary while orchestrating things from the sidelines. Power struggles ensue, alliances are made and broken, and it’s all… comedic?

Truth told I enjoyed the film a lot, and there were certainly many laugh out loud moments, but I’m not sure it exactly fits into a comedy mold. It struck me almost like one of Shakespeare’s histories, in which he is able to quickly and deftly pivot between laughs and cruelty. What’d you think, Jason? Did you, like me, have a poor enough grasp of Russian history that it took you awhile to remember who the eventual victor would be?

Jason Potel: Actually, the night before I saw the film, one of the stars was on Colbert and mentioned that he ultimately ended up the winner. That said, the character’s name is the only vaguely familiar one of the entire ensemble so I like to think I would’ve ended up piecing it together. I will say that after watching the film I was prompted to google the historical figure depicted so I could compare the real people to the more exaggerated versions on screen.

I did think that throughout the film the humor was ever-present albeit undermined by some really disturbing content. It felt like a farce of a Shakespearean history with slightly more slapstick and shock effect in that much of the comedy is derived from how these characters discuss and carry out incredible violence while remaining so blasé about the whole thing. I really love a good period piece comedy — I feel like they’re much harder to come by and much harder to pull off than a period piece drama like Schindler’s List or Carol, which appeal to an audience’s empathy while depicting the horrors of yesteryear. Films like The Little Hours and The Death of Stalin take on the challenge of finding the humor in the tragedy. It’s the kind of film that could easily have been done wrong and as a Veep fan, I’m really glad Iannucci was the one who decided to take on the adaptation of the graphic novel.

CM: Yeah, Veep is my only touch point for Iannucci and I thought The Death of Stalin was like Veep with stakes. The worst that happens in Veep, should they screw up, is Selina Meyers is once again embarrassed. The worst that happens here is that… you die.

I was also impressed by the use of period, and agree period comedies are harder to pull off, or at least a more rare breed, but The Death of Stalin pulls it off well. The film has a strong sense of world. Yes, Iannucci is working off a historical piece period, but he still finds moments both macro and micro to give the film depth – and this in particular is what gives the film its Shakespearean feel to me. Shakespeare is filled with mobs, and Guard #2s, as well as large casts of primary figures full of agency. The Death of Stalin uses similar techniques. Beria replaces the Army in the city with the NKVD, and Khrushchev weaponizes the poor by unblocking the trains at some point and allowing them to flood the city. Minor characters are given voice: in one particularly hilarious sequence a retired doctor, afraid he’s about to be arrested, continuously picks up his pace as a police truck rolls into the background until he and the police are both in a full out run. And the political mechanisms of Stalin’s lieutenants are complex – everyone is given equal agency. A particularly funny Molotov (Michael Palin) struggles with loyalty to his party, knowing his head was on the chopping block, and the return of his wife from prison, a move meant to please him but that he quickly sours to. It’s funny and complex and plays off mostly in the sidelines, which I absolutely loved.

But all those things couldn’t be pulled off without a fantastic cast and script, both of which I know you appreciated. Any performance in particular stand out? How’d you feel about the movie from a “movie” standpoint – Iannucci’s scripts are pretty wordy, but I thought there were lots of wonderful visual flourishes too.

JP: Hitherto unfamiliar with his work, I really enjoyed Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria, who somehow alienates the audience with his sadistic nature while still remaining slightly sympathetic by the end of the film. In a movie dominated by male roles, Andrea Riseborough steals a number of scenes as Stalin’s only daughter Svetlana.

Pacing can be a really tricky thing in any historical adaptation especially one spanning months and months like this one. Interestingly they literally compress a lot of what happens into just a few days, which spares us exhausting time jumps between events.

As you point out, the show mirrors Veep by creating a lot of cringe moments featuring a number of awkward political foibles. Also like Veep, the film clearly draws humor from the absurdity of the system, gruesomely highlighted in a disorienting montage of secret policemen performing mass executions before they themselves are taken out by higher ranking officers and so on and so on.

Obviously many critics have perceived The Death of Stalin as prophetic of our current situation, with Trump inching perpetually closer to some sort of ousting. It should of course be noted that Trump is no Stalin and while I have no love for Trump, we at least have the freedom to criticize him outright (much of the film’s humor comes from the strange way his people are conditioned to fear him so much they end up loving him). Regardless, were Trump to get impeached, any film adaptation would drown in the overflooding ocean of Trump sketches, satires, and parodies.

The Death of Stalin, however, feels clever, fun, and one-of-a-kind, which is why I am giving it 9 plotting politicians out 10 petrified physicians.

CM: Agreed. The movie does a great job of keeping Stalin around in the form of statues and a corpse after his death, and even once he’s off the scene his presence is felt in the extreme (and often hilarious) fear people feel for someone who cannot literally harm them any longer.

I give The Death of Stalin 8 angry pianists out of 10 fainting composers.


  • CM: A particularly inspired gag involved various cast members continuously kneeling in a puddle of piss while trying to check on a unconscious Stalin. This is exactly the sort of thing Iannucci excels at – our worst moments are often cut by embarrassment.
  • JP: Fun fact: Joseph Stalin shares a mausoleum with Vladimir Lenin, whose body has been preserved for public display since his death in 1924. This requires such painstaking maintenance that in 2016 the Russian government said it planned to spend 13 million rubles to preserve the body. Google it.
  • CM: Armando Iannucci was recently featured on Intelligence Squared in an interview about how classical music shapes the structure of his films. It’s a great interview, and beyond making me appreciate his structure it also made me appreciate classic musical a lot more. Check it out here (or wherever you listen to podcasts).

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