“…it’s no wonder that every man and his dog is bowing, curtsying and generally dribbling in feeble deference, fearful of speaking out of turn or putting a foot wrong.”
Armando Iannucci’s take on Stalin’s final days, his death and the aftermath, is a predictably comical affair.
Perhaps it’s the welcome presence of Michael Palin amongst the film’s stellar cast that immediately launches one’s brain into full-on levels of Monty Python expectancy, but as amusing and farcical as the film undoubtedly is, this tale of political turmoil and one-up-man-ship in the wake of Stalin’s passing, is a whole lot darker than one might have assumed it would be.
Then again, we’re talking about a particularly volatile period of history in a Socialist state in which your life was effectively entirely in the hands of a deeply unstable autocratic tyrannical leader, so perhaps that’s not so surprising after all.
In post-War U.S.S.R, it seems that everyone’s sole purpose in life is to ensure that they don’t appear on one of Stalin’s lists. To do so will almost certainly result in a knock on the door and a short while later, a bullet through the head.
Fun times. And so it’s no wonder that every man and his dog is bowing, curtsying and generally dribbling in feeble deference, fearful of speaking out of turn or putting a foot wrong.
The members of The General Committee are no exception, and not exempt from Stalin’s lists and his mafia-esque approach to politics. One moment you’re on the receiving end of copious praise and support, acknowledged as a crucial part of Stalin’s core staff. The next… worm food.
The chief success of Iannucci’s film is his ability to capture the abundant sense of paranoia so successfully. Essentially, there are no good guys in this piece, just an assortment of absolute ‘pieces of work’ intent upon looking after number one at all costs whilst never losing sight of the need to repeatedly praise their ‘great leader’.
No attempt whatsoever is made to even vaguely authenticate the film’s characterisation with faux Russian accents or the like. Instead, the key cast members adopt an assortment of entirely inappropriate vocal inflections. From shrill-voiced uber-sweary American, Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), to brash Yorkshireman, Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), to ruthless Cockney gangster, Josef Stalin himself (Rupert Friend).
Like one massive game of ‘all change,’ the people of the Union must be ready at the drop of a hat to twist and turn their allegiances accordingly, lest they feel the wrath of a fickle state. But there’s treachery in the air and skullduggery is most definitely afoot. This all makes for a rich and fertile ground in which Iannucci can nurture some comedy gold, and this he proceeds to do. Of course it helps that so much of the film’s highly improbable, at time ludicrous content – that you’d swear had originated only in the mind of the director himself – has in fact already been devised for him, being as his film is based upon actual events.
With gun shots ringing out and bodies a-tumblin’ – frequently preceded by the familiar refrain of “Long live Stalin” (so much for rewarding loyalty) – The Death of Stalin is a darkly humorous full-on farcical satire. Whether this is, all things considered, a wise approach to this particular point in history, is open to debate. And the debates that have arisen since the film’s launch have by all accounts on occasion boiled over, perhaps understandably when one considers the fact that Iannucci’s film in many ways ‘softens’ and down-plays the seriousness of the actions of a tyrant and mass murderer in the sort of way that, let’s face it, would be pretty much unimaginable were the director ever to have considered lampooning, for example, a certain Austrian fascist. Yes, you can just imagine those ‘hilarious scrapes’ now.
We’re lying to ourselves if we deny that literally absolutely everything without exception, should be fair game to be shot at. Of course, we know that this absolutely isn’t the case, and in this particular hypothetical case of potential double standards, it probably shouldn’t come as too much of a shock considering the generally accepted political leanings of the worlds of art and media. It is, however, interesting food for thought, nonetheless.
If it is indeed possible to judge Iannucci’s piece purely on its merits as a feature-length dark comedy, then it’s only fair to say that even though the film’s comedic momentum dissipates somewhat as it moves into its latter stages, by and large, this a dark and disturbing comedy that hits the mark, and spectacularly so at times.