I must admit that I approached this movie with a great deal of trepidation. As someone with a serious interest in the history of the Soviet Union, I confess I have a touch of humorlessness on the subject. Rather than getting into the spirit of things when people poke fun at it or take it lightly, I dig in my heels, affect a pretentious tone, and go “well, actually…” On top of that, years spent listening to Russian reactions has made me increasingly wary of how many popular Western depictions of Russia and Russian culture lean on caricature and straight-up bigotry. There’s even a word for it in Russian – klyukva – which gives an indication of how widespread the problem is (and how unaware of it we in the West seem to be).
Still, it was a setting I was interested in, and I had quite enjoyed the original French bandes dessinée the movie was based on, so yesterday I suited up and took the plunge.
To get the basics out of the way, The Death of Stalin is a 2017 film adapted and directed by Armando Iannucci of The Thick of It, In the Loop, and Veep fame. As the title would suggest, the film is a depiction of the events surrounding Stalin’s death, starting with the stroke that felled him on March 1, 1953 and his death proper four days later, and the struggle for power among his subordinates that the both the film and the BD conclude with NKVD chief Lavrenti Beria’s execution on December 23rd. Naturally, the film takes a great many liberties with the historical record that it bears only a vague resemblance to its source. If you want an outline of what facts there are, Joshua Rubenstein ably covered the period in his 2016 work The Last Days of Stalin. Still, even if you approach The Death of Stalin just as a story in and of itself, the film has serious problems.
For me, the fundamental flaw of The Death of Stalin is that it is a comedy. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t object to the film being funny; I’ve long been a firm believer that comedy and horror are wonderful bedfellows. However, the comedy is pitched wrong, and the horror is inconsistent at best. Since the BD managed to walk this particular tightrope reasonably well, I can only lay the blame for this at the feet of Armando Iannucci himself. This is the first project of his I’ve seen, but while I’ve heard marvelous things about his earlier work set in Britain, he seems out of place in a Soviet period piece, and he flounders trying to grasp at the material.
To give the events of 1953 some narrative structure, Fabien Nury, writer of the original BD, framed his story as a chronicle of the resisted rise of Lavrenti Beria. While the story is very much an ensemble piece, it is Beria’s machinations that turn the plot, and it is his vile actions and smug certainty that he is the smartest, canniest manipulator in the room that drives the rest of Stalin’s inner circle to unite against him. Iannucci preserves this structure, but distorts it by elevating Nikita Khrushchev to the status of co-star, which results in a lot of superfluous fluff and scenes of explicit plotting that could have been better handled through glances and implications. Additionally, while Nury wisely made the decision to root its humor in the farcical nature of the events surrounding Stalin’s death, Iannucci roots his in the characters, transforming them into grotesque caricatures. Georgi Malenkov gets the worst of it, being transformed into a sort of idiot man-child, while Molotov is made into a doddering double-speaking old fool and Khrushchev is a sort of fast-talking New York gangster. Having everyone save Khrushchev speak in British accents only compounds the unreality of the whole film, and it’s hard to imagine any of these men as capable of surviving a bad performance review, let alone a world war and political terror. (Ironically, I think all the actors did fantastic jobs with their roles; I merely object to what they were instructed to do.)
However, it is with the horror that both Ianucci and the film fail. The film opens in the midst of the “Doctor’s Plot,” a campaign against both intellectuals and prominent Jews that was likely broadening into a general purge on the scale of 1937. However, while the film throws a lot of images of NKVD men storming out of vans and people being dragged out of their flats in their bedclothes, there is no palpable fear to these scenes. While there is violence and blood, it is mostly played for slapstick, with bodies falling down the stairs in the background and the like. Throughout the film, I got the sense that Iannucci does not really understand how to depict political violence. Most of his prior work is set within the halls of power of Anglophone democracies, which for all their flaws are orderly places where the rules always apply. Depicting the dread that forms when you work in a system where, at any moment, with no warning, you and your family can be dragged away, browbeaten into signing something you’ve never seen before, shot in a ditch like a dog, and had every sign you ever existed scrubbed away, and never understand why, is beyond his abilities.
Because of this inability to handle the laughter and the fear, Iannucci’s film is missing most of the small, humanizing moments that made the BD work for me. One of the biggest comes right at the beginning of the film, where a Radio Moscow director has to hurriedly restage a Mozart concerto after Stalin calls him up and asks for a copy of the unrecorded program. There is a genuine undercurrent of fear and anger throughout the scene, culminating when the original conductor of the concerto collapses, petrified with fear, and has to be replaced. In the movie, the director comes across as a simpering British civil servant trying to appease his boss, while the conductor mumbles and falls in the background. Other little moments of Stalin’s children and former confidants wondering what his death means and what he meant to their lives, little moments that humanize these men and women, have been excised entirely. Finally, in an appalling tone-deaf conclusion, the credits of the film play as photographs of the actors are scratched out, blacked out, and airbrushed in the manner of photos of “unpersons” from the 1930s.
While there isn’t much to redeem the filmed version of The Death of Stalin, the original bandes dessinée is well worth reading. After that, I would recommend Pierre Christin’s The Hunting Party as a sort of loose sequel, telling the tale of a group of Eastern European apparatchiks on a hunting trip with their old Soviet patron in pre-Solidarity Poland, musing on the compromises made and lives ended in the name of revolution.