Movie Review: The Death of Stalin
Director: Armando Iannucci
by Jason Koenigsberg
The word comedy does not come to mind when one usually thinks of Joseph Stalin. This movie proves the age old theory that comedy=tragedy+time. Joseph Stalin, the greatest mass murderer of the 20th century, who killed more men than Hitler, has a comedy that bears his name. Mel Brooks should be proud.
The Death of Stalin opens up with the title over a red background, an obvious prominent color of Communism, then cuts to hands playing a piano. Right away we learn that we are in Moscow in 1953 and we see Stalin ruling over the Soviet Union with his iron fist. He has death lists and if you are on one of those lists, it is only a short matter of time before his secret police and their Gestapo-like tactics come and take you away to the gulag or kill you on the spot. Once again this material has to be treated right otherwise the comedy would be very off-putting and tasteless. Fortunately The Death of Stalin is very well directed, acted, and written so the comedic timing works perfectly. Comedy through chaos make up the majority of the humor.
Stalin dies early on and his committee of chairmen scramble to arrange the funeral and carry on the Soviet regime after his passing. His team of advisors include Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev, Michael Palin as Molotov, Simon Russell Beale as Beria, and Jeffrey Tambor as a clueless Malenkov. Some of the casting fits right away and others took some time to adjust. I for one would have never envisioned Steve Buscemi as the shoe thrashing and hot tempered Nikita Khrushchev but by the end of the film, I accepted it and would not have wanted it any other way. These actors are not meant to portray these Soviet leaders realistically, but only in a satirical way and for that The Death of Stalin is a superb farce.
The Death of Stalin shows Stalin and his group of dignitaries that are usually viewed in a serious and scary manner, as normal people and somewhat bumbling idiots with buffoonery on par with Abbot and Costello or The Three Stooges. A comedic look at a man and his regime that ruled with terror, stripping away the fear and looking at the humor similar to the way Mel Brooks viewed Hitler in The Producers (1968).
This is historical fiction of a very high caliber. The humor is driven by stammering dialogue and repetition of words, but there are some inspired scenes of physical comedy involving moving a dead body that are guaranteed to get laughs from the audience. The comedy actually gets stronger as the movie progresses. The further the plot develops the more problems are created and hilarity follows. A lot of the jokes involve who the leaders need to blame and how they can roll out the information for the general public. A not so subtle allegory about how all governments probably work. With our current state of politics it is easy to imagine President Trump having similarly inept meetings with his cabinet members. The final shot was a real winner as it shows Buscemi as Khrushchev watching a play while an actor who clearly resembles Leonid Brezhnev stares at him with a wry smile. It is only April but The Death of Stalin is an early candidate for the funniest movie of the year.