There are movies you root for. You want them to be great, and when they disappoint, you don’t want to admit it to yourself or others: you might laugh along with the audience, afterwards you might recommend them a little more highly than you know they deserve. For me, The Death of Stalin is one of these movies. Maybe my expectations were too high; its release felt, for me, like an event. Who could better portray the ogrish cronies that jockeyed around Stalin? It looked like it could be kind of a magnum opus for Armando Iannucci, the modern master of political satire behind Veep and The Thick of It. It looked to match his talent as a humorist with a grand historical subject.
And British comedy, certainly the film’s genre (Iannucci himself is Scottish), would seem to be the perfect fit for tackling the totalitarian nightmare of Stalinism. Not just because of the willingness of British comedians to revel in black humor, but also because the British seem to find dictators and dictatorship both endlessly fascinating and silly. Think of Monty Python’s sketch of Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels hiding out at a boarding house in Somerset, preparing Hitler’s bid for Parliament under the name Mr. Hilter; or their sketch about a TV game show featuring Marx, Lenin, Che Guevara, and Mao. There’s also Mitchell and Webb’s fantastic “Are we the baddies?” sketch, where two Waffen SS officers realize they might be the bad guys because of the skulls on their hats. Great Britain, Orwell wrote, is marked by a gentleness that can never fully take militarism seriously: “Why is the goose-step not used in England? There are, heaven knows, plenty of army officers who would be only too glad to introduce some such thing. It is not used because the people in the street would laugh.”
Iannucci’s method, his stock-in-trade, is to inject bawdiness and immaturity where you’d expect poise and decorum.
Maybe being steeped in that sensibility is part of the reason that the British actors in The Death of Stalin—Monty Python veteran Michael Palin and the Shakespearean-trained Simon Russell Beale—feel more inspired in their roles. Palin steals the show as a truly mindless and broken Vyacheslav Molotov; he captures Molotov’s likely state of mind in 1953: humiliated and submissive to the Boss, but still a true believer in the Bolshevik cause. Beale, for his part, plays a mincing and unctuous Lavrentiy Beria—Stalin’s monstrous secret policeman—always, menacing, sarcastic and relishing in his sadistic kicks. It seems Palin and Beale actually read about the men they were portraying. On the other hand, Steve Buscemi, as an agitated and harassed Khrushchev, and Jeffrey Tambor, as a bumbling and ineffectual Malenkov, do little more than play themselves.
Then there’s Stalin. In a small but crucial role, Adrian McLoughlin performs him as crude and crass, but most characterizations of the dictator make it clear he was a “gray” presence; although possessed of an explosive temper, he was often soft-spoken, appearing modest, even shy and diffident. At the end, his subordinates feared making him feel self-conscious most of all. He could also turn on the charm, a big source of his power. He was a subtle guy, and no less a menschenkenner than Frankin D. Roosevelt noticed: “They say he is a peasant from one of the least progressive parts of Russia. But let me tell you he had an elegance of manner that none of the rest of us had.” A blushing and mild Stalin, contrasting with his insane tempers and brutality, might have been a funnier and truer conceit than a barking one. But Iannucci always leans on the insults. This brings us to the script.
Iannucci’s method, his stock-in-trade, is to inject bawdiness and immaturity where you’d expect poise and decorum, for instance: polished Whitehall bureaucrats resorting to puerile language. It’s usually a good move, but it didn’t work so well in The Death of Stalin. Maybe because Stalin’s men were actually that crude. Nikolai Yezhov, Stalin’s “poison dwarf” who oversaw millions of deaths in the purges of the late ’30s, used to blow cigarette ashes off the table with his farts. Compared with Yezhov’s party trick, the jokes in The Death of Stalin seem tame. When Tambor hesitates to help pick up the body of incapacitated Stalin, Buscemi chides, “You’re not auditioning for the Bolshoi: who are you Nijinsky?” It feels like an attempt to jam in Russian references. In fact, most of the best lines in the movie ended up in the trailer, which points to a problem of Iannucci’s work in general: it’s best consumed in clips on YouTube, whether it’s the rants of psychotic Scottish bully Malcolm from The Thick of It or the best insults from Veep. Here there are throwaway lines, and worse. In one scene, Beria threatens Khrushchev, “You and your wife and your family would be a pile of dust on a crematorium toilet.” It just makes you cringe, and not because it’s such a horrible image.
Stalin would force his staff to engage in fearsome drinking sessions, partly for the fun of seeing how they would humiliate themselves when drunk.
As it happens, the funniest parts of the movie are not the jokes but the physical comedy: the grimacing faces, the characters rushing around and falling over each other as they move between browbeating and toadying. A scene that finds them toting the urine-soaked Stalin from the floor to his bed is one of the best in the whole movie. And all of this is, in a way, accurate: Stalin’s court was slapstick, and Iannucci perhaps had to tone it down to make it believable. For instance, we see, in an early scene, a slightly bleary, drink-sodden Molotov, Beria, Khrushchev, and Malenkov stagger out of a dinner with the boss, trying to remember what they said, lest they be murdered. In reality, the situation was crazier and more severe: Stalin would sometimes force his staff to engage in fearsome drinking sessions, partly to see what they would say and partly just for the fun of seeing how they would humiliate themselves when drunk. To illustrate, Simon Sebag-Montefiore writes, “Sometimes the drinking at these bacchanals was so intense that the potentates, like aging, bloated students, staggered out to vomit, soiled themselves or simply had to be borne home by their guards.”
If there is another episode I was surprised to see Iannucci omit, it was Beria’s actual conduct as Stalin lay dying:
[He] ‘spewed forth his hatred of Stalin’ but whenever his eyelids flickered or his eyes opened, Beria, terrified that he would recover, ‘knelt and kissed his hand’ like an Oriental vizier at a Sultan’s beside. When Stalin sank again into sleep, Beria virtually spat at him . . .
It would be pedantic to insist a farce keep to the historical record, so you can’t begrudge Iannucci for taking liberties with the details. But this sordid pantomime sums up the character of Beria and the world of Stalinism so well that it seems a shame to leave it out. Again, the audience might not have bought it, perhaps because the world of Stalin was more abject and absurd than any comedy could manage. And this isn’t a moral judgment; we are so familiar with the “banality of evil” thesis, and the idea of mass murder being the product of a bureaucratic machine, that it’s shocking to learn how directly Stalin involved himself in the task. As appropriate for the leader of a worker’s state, and unlike the lazy bohemian Hitler, Stalin dirtied his hands: he personally signed and annotated death lists during the terrors, writing specific instructions to the torturers, like “Beat! Beat!”
Even with its gallows humor, The Death of Stalin feels a bit glib. I wouldn’t want to proscribe the content of art, but it may be that there is no comedic match, not even Iannucci, for this subject matter. The ghastly vistas of Stalin’s world are too grim to contemplate for long: the raucous parties on the special trains the magnates took to their Black Sea resorts while peasants starved in the millions; the special shooting galleries Stalin’s butchers prepared to drain blood more efficiently; his cronies’ eagerness to exceed their execution quotas—to the sheer arbitrariness of who would get killed. To think about Stalin’s world at any length breeds despair; to watch Iannucci’s satire of it just elicits forced, polite laughter.