April 2018

Arts & Letters

Armando Iannucci’s ‘The Death of Stalin’

By Shane Danielsen
This Soviet satire pushes comedy’s tragedy-plus-time formula to the limit

“Animals with a culture,” a (Polish) friend once called Russians. Which struck me as rather harsh, though I knew what she meant. Formidable as their artistic achievements are, there’s an undeniable savagery to the Russian temperament – the result, I suppose, of a life lived at the threshold, both geographically and existentially. Gary Shteyngart, himself an émigré, wrote of “the logical impossibility of a place like Russia existing alongside the civilized world”, and its not-quite-normality hits you at every minute there, as numerous “Russian” clichés are proved disarmingly true: the taxi driver who can quote from Lermontov and Pushkin; the drunk in the street humming a passage from Tchaikovsky. Things to cling to against the howling cold, the deep, all-devouring darkness beyond their cities’ lights.

I remember, the first time I went to Moscow, seeing old women standing in the long tunnels leading to the Tverskaya metro station, holding posters of Stalin and weeping – actually weeping – for what they had lost. Not the 20 million or so lives he’s believed to have extinguished; for the man himself, the cruel and capable father of modern Russia. (Though to be fair, this occurred during the early years of Yeltsin, already a notorious soak. One’s reputation could only profit by comparison.)

How, you might ask, is any of this a source of amusement? “Tragedy plus time” is the standard formula for comedy – but how much tragedy, exactly? And after how long? Writer-director Armando Iannucci grapples with these questions in his excellent second feature, The Death of Stalin, based on a French graphic novel of the same name (by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin).

A Glaswegian satirist, Iannucci has been responsible, in whole or in part, for a number of the British comedies I’ve loved most in the past quarter-century, from BBC2’s The Day Today and Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge, to his scabrous Westminster parody The Thick of It, the precursor to his later, rather more famous HBO hit Veep. Great as those first two shows are – and I sometimes think The Day Today is my favourite TV comedy ever – it’s with the latter vehicles that he seemed to find his metier: as a forensic observer of political ambition, delusion and mendacity, the Suetonius of our age.

This time, co-writing with long-time collaborators David Schneider and Ian Martin, Iannucci sticks fairly closely to the action of the comic – beginning, just as it does, with the famous but probably apocryphal story of a Moscow radio orchestra scrambling to re-create a performance after Stalin requested a copy of a broadcast that some studio technician had carelessly forgotten to record. The musicians are hastily reconvened, and a makeshift audience pulled in from the street. A replacement conductor is summoned – even as his neighbours are being arrested across the hall. And at last the piano concerto is played again, this time with the tape running.

But the female soloist (played by Olga Kurylenko) is a dissident, the daughter of a couple murdered in one of the purges, and takes a moment to slip an accusatory note in with the recording for the great man to read. “Josef Vissarionovich Stalin,” she writes, “you have betrayed our nation and destroyed its people. I pray for your end.” Alone in his study, Stalin reads the note, chuckles at its audacity – and has a heart attack, and dies.

When an especially large vessel sinks, many small craft are taken down with it. The rest of the film describes, with grim amusement, the hours and days that follow, as an array of subordinate Soviets, from an indignant Nikita Khrushchev (played, improbably but well, by Steve Buscemi) to the vain, weak Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), attempt to outwit one another and seize the reins of power … and avoid winding up dead in the process.

Curiously, American colleagues have seemed far less enamoured by the result than British and Australian ones – not because they lack a sense of irony (the standard, and mistaken, answer), but because they consider the subject matter somehow inappropriate. “It’s like the Holocaust,” one critic spluttered, after the film’s premiere in Toronto last September. “You couldn’t make a comedy out of that, either.” (For what it’s worth, the Russian government appears to agree: the film has been banned there, with one member of the culture ministry’s advisory board declaring that it “desecrates our historical symbols: the Soviet hymn, orders and medals, and Marshal Zhukov is portrayed as an idiot”. Tellingly, though, the official complaint was that it contained “information whose dissemination is prohibited by law”.)

My own response was that the Holocaust was something unprecedented in human history: a systematic process of extermination that pretty well defies onscreen representation. (This is why the recent Hungarian Oscar-winning Son of Saul was so effective: suggesting without quite revealing what’s occurring beyond the edges of the frame.) Whereas the crimes of Stalin, while no less awful, were appallingly typical in their details: the squalid product of a vast bureaucracy, a population’s blind belief in the efficacy of power (itself a hangover from centuries of tsarist rule), and a tyrant’s hunger for absolute control. The statistics are formidable, of course: 20 million dead is hardly a number to sneeze at. But then, Russia is a big place.

Though positioned at a historical turning point, The Death of Stalin is essentially about office politics, and in this sense no different to Veep – or for that matter to Iannucci’s previous feature, his 2009 Iraq War satire In the Loop. All that’s changed is his technique. Previously, he sought a tone of hectic verisimilitude, conveyed through overlapping dialogue and a darting, handheld camera; watching, you had the sense of spying-upon rather than observing the action. This film is far more composed and conventionally shot. Its pacing is more measured. Even the extravagant profanity – a hallmark of Iannucci’s work – is scaled back, though there’s no shortage of poisonous, memorable lines. (“That fucker thinks he can take on the Red Army? I fucked Germany. I think I can take a flesh-lump in a fucking waistcoat.”)

As expected, there are some terrific, if broad, supporting performances: Jason Isaacs steals every scene as Marshal Zhukov, leader of the Soviet forces at the Battle of Berlin (and speaker of the line quoted above); Rupert Friend is terrific as Stalin’s drunken son Vasily; and Michael Palin makes a welcome return as the hapless Molotov, doggedly loyal to the dead dictator without realising that he was himself on a list to be executed. A writer first and foremost, Iannucci delights in crafting elaborate, ever-so-slightly surreal dialogue, and letting talented actors have their way with it. Perhaps his smartest decision here is to have his cast refrain from using anything resembling a Russian accent, instead suggesting their various origins and status through varieties of mostly British speech. Thus, Stalin – a “coarse” Georgian – is played as a cockney, while Zhukov is a bluff Yorkshireman.

But, ultimately, the film belongs to Simon Russell Beale, as the vile Lavrenti Beria – long-time head of the NKVD (the Soviet secret police), and an unrepentant torturer and rapist. Though terrific in the TV series Penny Dreadful, as the effete but quietly courageous antiquarian Ferdinand Lyle, Beale has struggled to find film roles that convey his extraordinary power as a stage actor. Here he’s at last given a part worthy of his talents, and he makes the most of the opportunity. Handing a list of names to a soldier, Beria pauses to point at one line. “Shoot her before him,” he murmurs, “but make sure he sees it.” Towards the end, after trying in vain to reason with Stalin’s hysterical daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), he turns away from her, and his eyes grow cold and distant. The moment is little short of chilling.

Already nihilistic, the film’s tone darkens even further as it enters its final act, and the logic of succession unravels and the conspirators’ actions become more desperate and unpredictable. Some Russian soldiers enter a room just as Zhukov is staging a coup – and pause, the horror showing on their faces. “Sorry, comrades,” one mutters. “Wrong room.” As they turn and exit, Zhukov looks to his nearest lieutenant. “Go and kill them, will you?” he says quietly. The soldier nods and follows the men out.

This, more than the reports of protesting crowds slaughtered in the streets, or the stricken faces of Beria’s victims, is the real horror underlining the film: that the difference between living and dying can be reduced to something as apparently inconsequential as opening the wrong door at the wrong moment. Not a laugh-line – it’s delivered almost as an aside – it is nevertheless the clearest and best explication of the film’s pitch-black worldview.

Despite its setting, The Death of Stalin also feels uncomfortably pertinent in light of our current circumstances. Donald Trump is no authoritarian dictator (though I have little doubt he’d like to be), yet is so monumentally vain, crass, buffoonish and ignorant it beggars credulity – and many of his confrères are hardly less improbable. Never mind Iannucci: even the most accomplished satirist would struggle to conceive a character as cartoonishly vulgar as Anthony Scaramucci, as sinister as Stephen Miller, as obliviously self-regarding as Ben Carson. Yet here we are, in a dark hour, stuck with our own Kremlin’s-worth of venal, unscrupulous pricks; this is our tragedy. But time will pass, it will. One day, someone shall laugh at this.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

April 2018

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