Monday, June 06, 2022

"The Death of Stalin": review

[WARNING: spoilers.]

"The Death of Stalin" is a 2017 satire directed by Armando Iannucci and starring an ensemble cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Paul Whitehouse, and Olga Kurylenko. A black comedy based on the immediate aftermath of the death of Josef Stalin, the story focuses on the struggle resulting from the power vacuum left by Stalin's sudden passing.

Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) listens to a piano concerto via radio one night; when the concerto finishes, he telephones the studio adjacent to the concert hall and asks for a recording of the concerto. Since the performance had been broadcast live, no recording had been made, so the frenzied coordinators stop half the audience from leaving, prod the musicians back onstage, rope in audience "extras" from people outside on the street (to fill out the sound of applause and to keep the acoustics from being too echo-y), and redo the entire concert just so it can be recorded. The recording is delivered to Stalin, but not before pianist Maria Yudina (Kurylenko) has a chance to slip in an angry note with the recording, accusing Stalin of having betrayed the country. Stalin finds the note and laughs while reading it, then suffers a severe brain hemorrhage. The guards outside the door to Stalin's private room are too afraid to go in and check when they hear Stalin fall to the floor, and it is only the following morning that the head domestic is let in to discover Stalin lying prone in a puddle of his own urine. 

Members of Stalin's cabinet trickle in, most of them convinced Stalin is dead. With all the good doctors in Moscow having been arrested or executed, a team of less-competent physicians is found to assess Stalin's condition. Surrounding Stalin, who has now been placed in a bed, is his central committee: Beria (Beale), Khrushchev (Buscemi), Molotov (Palin), and Malenkov (Tambor). Beria is the shifty, crafty chief of the NKVD, a combination of the FBI and the secret police. He immediately finds Yudina's note and begins maneuvering to bolster his own power. Khrushchev had been wanting to introduce liberal reforms to the Soviet Union, but Beria takes Khrushchev's reforms and introduces them himself in a bid to improve his own public image. Molotov proves to be a man of pendular loyalties, and Malenkov, who is technically Stalin's successor, is a weak and malleable puppet.

What follows is a labyrinth of plotting and planning that would put Game of Thrones to shame. Eventually, most of the central committee aligns itself against Beria with the help of the Russian army, headed by Georgy Zhukov (Isaacs). Beria, for all his complicated scheming, his dissimulations and confabulations, ends up dead and burned to ash as Russia undergoes yet another useless revolution.

I don't know how historically accurate "The Death of Stalin" is; I'm not that familiar with the history (having never been a particularly good student of history). The movie plays like a comedy, for the most part, and even the numerous executions are mostly done off-screen, as if there were some need to be tasteful. The film still manages to convey the horror and paranoia that would come with living inside a totalitarian police state, and while the film might have played fast and loose with the actual history, it successfully conveyed the underlying anxiety and need for doublethink that were necessary to survive in such a regime. I heard there was some controversy about how all the actors were allowed to speak in their own natural accents instead of attempting to sound more Russian, but I found the accents irrelevant. There's little cornier than non-Russians trying to sound Russian (although, admittedly, some actors do it well), and in a movie like this, there's a subtextual "universal translator" dynamic at work: everyone is assumed to be speaking Russian if they are, in fact, speaking in natural English. The movie is, in fact, based on a French graphic novel called La mort de Staline, so any inaccuracies could probably be laid at the graphic novel's feet.

What struck me, though, was how the movie could be taken as a warning for America's current slip into totalitarianism. The film came out in 2017, during the Trump era, so I imagine some pious liberals at the time saw the film as an allegory for the supposedly fascistic Donald Trump and his administration. This accusation of fascism has always been fallacious because no true dictator would ever have allowed the opposition so loudly to call him a dictator: in a true dictatorship, such people would have been rounded up and shot. Dissent in a dictatorship would exist, but it would be driven underground. That was never true in Trump's America. Biden's America, by contrast, controls the media, the education system, and pretty much everything else from top to bottom. In this America, dissent does exist, and it gets canceled whenever it's found, but it is pretty much an underground movement composed of memes and alt-media. The further irony is that the actors involved in "The Death of Stalin" are almost all woke lefties, utterly oblivious to the notion of being involved in the making of a film that basically satirizes their own ideology.

So "The Death of Stalin" is definitely recommended viewing, keeping in mind that the people who thought they were so brave in making the film were, in the end, unknowingly lampooning their own cause while thinking they were speaking truth to power. They were doing that, in a sense, but not the truth they intended, and not to the power they were thinking of.


The Maximum Leader said...

Oh my goodness. This is probably my favorite film of the last 20 years. I love it so much. I should write you a bit more commentary in an email. One thing I will note here, having each actor speak in his own accent was a deliberate choice by Iannuci to reflect that each of the historical figures was from a different part of the Soviet Union and each spoke with a regional accent.

(I need to write you not just about this but about life in general. I've been terrible correspondent.)

Kevin Kim said...

Ach! You know, you haven't blogged a thing for nearly a year. This makes me very sad. I haven't taken Naked Villainy off my roster out of a sense of loyalty, and I still check the blog every single day, hoping for some kind of update—anything. Of course, there is none. The whole thing is an exercise in desolation. Did you ever get that person to go into your blog's code and root around? I'm guessing not. When might that happen? Matters seem to be proceeding at a positively Soviet pace. Anyway, I look forward to an email from you. You've got a birthday coming up, and some humble gifts are already on their way SchloƟward.

Charles said...

I loved this film and had the good fortune to see it when it came out. For what it's worth, I didn't read it as an allegory or warning about anything. Personally, I think both sides go a little overboard when the other side is in power.