Political satire nowadays is regarded as the mainstay of late-night television programs. The 24-hour news cycle and ever changing subject matter has the risk of making a political comment on film irrelevant before the movie even comes out. How then do you make a political comedy relevant and lasting? Well, Armando Iannucci does this in “The Death of Stalin” by taking on a historical event and filtering it through a modern lens of background political maneuvering, machinations and deal making that anyone following politics today can relate to. And in doing so is able to savagely deconstruct the political process and true motivations of those in government who are more concerned with wielding power instead of public service.
The best way I can think of to describe “The Death of Stalin” is a darkly comic retelling of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ as translated by Monty Python (which makes perfect sense as Michael Palin has a hilarious role as Russian dignitary Vyaschelav Molotov). The film wastes no time in establishing the amount of control and fear Stalin exerts over the populace by starting with the Russian leader calling into a radio program and requesting a copy of the night’s symphony performance. As no such recording exists, and too afraid to refuse, the producer desperately tries to recreate the show by preventing the musicians from leaving and filling up the audience with anyone off the street. Everything seems to be working out until the conductor manages to knock himself out. As we cut out to the streets, we witness the secret police pounding on doors, rounding up citizens suspected of speaking out against the government, closing in on an elderly gentleman in his bathrobe hearing a knock on his door. He nervously opens the door only to reveal that he is the closest conductor to the concert hall and he is to come right away as across the hall his neighbours are being rounded up to be sent to a gulag.
This type of satirical contrast is ever present in Iannucci’s densely plotted, character driven, stuffed-to-the-brim film. From the personal guards who dare not open the doors to check on Stalin to the idea that Stalin had all the good doctors “removed” so there is no one qualified to treat him, the film highlights the hypocrisy of those in power doing everything they can to stay in power instead of serving the people. Even Stalin’s inner circle of the ruling council take to writing down the details of their conversations so they can stay in his favour next time. These leaders are more concerned with how things make them look than being guided by any kind of governmental principle.
Nowhere is this difference more on display then when Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and Kruschev (Steve Buscemi) are more concerned with who will get the most recognition for setting up Stalin’s funeral then showing and compassion for the 1500 fellow citizens who died in the streets on their way to see Stalin lying in state. The characters are all trying to dance around each other to get the upper hand, again literally shown here on screen by Kruschev trying to implore Malenkhov (Jeffrey Tambor) to switch places with him in front of Stalin’s dead body so he can continue gathering support and information to seize power. The constant back and forth between Kruschev and Beria in their bid for power showcases just how much both of them are willing to go to further their own interests yet by doing so also become the ones with targets on their backs.
The parallels Iannuci draws between 1953 and now makes “The Death of Stalin” a masterstroke commentary on today’s political climate. Astute and incisive, filled with a wealth of indelible performances from one of the most exceptional casts you’re likely to see this year, its “Through the Looking Glass” approach really exposes the worst and most dangerous part of the political machine, while also not being afraid to stand against the apathy of accepting that this is how things need to be. “The Death of Stalin” is a seminal work of absurd political comedy well worth taking in time and again. Perhaps in 30 to 40 years we will look at it again and ask ourselves if anything in this film has really changed.