Follows the Soviet dictator’s last days and depicts the chaos of the regime after his death.
Director: Armando Iannucci
Writers: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider
Stars: Andrea Riseborough, Jason Isaacs, Olga Kurylenko, Steve Buscemi
Closed Captioning Available
The comedy of cruelty is rarely funnier or more brutal than when it comes from Armando Iannucci, a virtuoso of political evisceration. A comic talent who should be household famous, he is best known for “Veep,” the HBO series about Washington politics that was a satire when it first hit in 2012 but now seems like a reality show. He also directed the movie “In the Loop,” an aptly obscene burlesque about the run-up to the Iraq War. He only seems to have abandoned contemporary politics in his latest, “The Death of Stalin,” an eccentric comic shocker about a strong man and his world of ashes and blood.
The laughs come in jolts and waves in “The Death of Stalin,” delivered in a brilliantly arranged mix of savage one-liners, lacerating dialogue and perfectly timed slapstick that wouldn’t be out of place in a Three Stooges bit. Turning horror into comedy is nothing new, but Mr. Iannucci’s unwavering embrace of these seemingly discordant genres as twin principles is bracing. In “The Death of Stalin,” fear is so overwhelming, so deeply embedded in everyday life that it distorts ordinary expression, utterances, gestures and bodies. It has turned faces into masks (alternately tragic and comic), people into caricatures, death into a punch line.
The movie opens in early March 1953. The iron-fisted Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), 74, has ruled the Soviet Union for decades and racked up countless crimes against humanity and millions of victims. A near-monosyllabic thug with a helmet of steel-gray hair and a retinue of flatterers — Khrushchev and Molotov are among the names crowding this familiar roll call — Stalin likes classical music and old westerns, a casual reminder that barbarism and civilization are often partners in crime. Squirreled away in a dacha, a relatively modest woodland retreat at a remove from the Kremlin, Stalin kicks back with his toadies only to fall grievously ill later that same evening.
He briefly hangs on, gasping but mute, throwing his nominal comrades in arms into a fast-spiraling panic. The most appealing, or rather the least obviously terrible, of these is Khrushchev (a superb Steve Buscemi), the minister of agriculture and a cunning, outwardly drab schemer. Like a seasoned standup, Khrushchev tells his wife which of his jokes made Stalin laugh, an accounting that she dutifully preserves for future reference. When he learns that Stalin has taken ill, Khrushchev hastily pulls a jacket and pants over his pajamas and rushes to his side, where Beria (Simon Russell Beale, brilliant), the head of the secret police, the N.K.V.D., has already taken up position and begun plotting.
“The Death of Stalin” is based on graphic novels by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, and Mr. Nury shares writing credit here with Mr. Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows. It’s a seamless effort that comes alive with a dazzling ensemble that includes Jason Isaacs as Zhukov, a preening military force, and Michael Palin as Molotov, a first deputy prime minister. When the story opens, Molotov has no inkling that he’s about to make a miraculous escape. Like the rest of Stalin’s men, he has helped create a world of bureaucratically administered terror, one in which each bullet to the head is rationalized on a neatly typed hit list. And now he’s on such a list.
Mr. Iannucci draws from history with its competing narratives, bending it to his purposes. Real traumas and outrages are mentioned in passing, rather than dutifully explained; there’s a brief look inside the gulag, for instance, with its desperate prisoners and splatters of blood. For the most part, though, the Stalin-era atrocities are the ghastly background for the frantic intrigue of his hangers on. Khrushchev soon emerges as one of the canniest of these survivors, though Beria moves faster and initially with far more lethal force. Soon after Stalin finally dies, Beria sends out his own kill list, embracing — as Selina Meyer of “Veep” once put it — continuity with change.
The action shifts to Moscow and assorted gruesome and grandiose interiors in which Khrushchev and the rest take turns organizing the funeral and their own uncertain futures. Karl Marx increasingly gives way to the Marx Brothers as Stalin’s son and daughter (the contrapuntal Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough) rush in to wail and thunder, adding absurdity and self-dramatizing melodrama to the mix. There are secret meetings, crowds of mourners, visiting dignitaries and more secret meetings. Mr. Iannucci is particularly good at the theater of sycophancy and at all the ways in which supplicating faces, hands and bodies can quiver in fear and with a terrible love.
“The Death of Stalin” is by turns entertaining and unsettling, with laughs that morph into gasps and uneasy gasps that erupt into queasy, choking laughs. Mr. Iannucci’s decision to have the performers speak in an array of accented English — from Brooklyn to Cockney — carries some political resonance, suggesting that totalitarianism knows no borders. But it also makes the familiar strange, creating a Brechtian alienation that few movies succeed in pulling off. Mr. Buscemi plays Khrushchev with persuasive realism, and he certainly looks the part, with his bald head and boxy clothing. But the character’s Brooklyn accent also underscores Mr. Buscemi’s identity, making him present, too.
This doubling in which both the actor and the character wave at the audience is also a familiar comic strategy, one used by the likes of Bugs Bunny and Jim Carrey. It fits for a movie in which almost all the characters have been playing variations on the same role of slavishly adoring, lethally submissive servant. Stalin hasn’t taken his final breath before Beria and Khrushchev stop playing those roles; others, like Molotov and Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the deputy prime minister and Stalin’s heir apparent, scarcely seem to have anything left except their long-enacted performances.
In his book “The Last Days of Stalin,” Joshua Rubenstein captures the dictator’s power over the Soviet Union in a quote: “Stalin was inside everyone, like the hammer alongside the sickle in every mind.” In Mr. Iannucci’s movie, you see the hammer and the sickle in each pale, scheming face, in every prison cell and bootlicker’s smile. It’s in Beria’s every move and there when Malenkov puts on a dolorous face and a corset, setting the timer for his own end. There are times when Mr. Iannucci seems as merciless as he is funny; hope can seem very distant here. Yet he also suggests — with the help of a pianist played by Olga Kurylenko and the example of his movie — that art is one sure path to resistance.
-MANOHLA DARGIS, NY TIMES