On January 29th, less than two months before The Death of Stalin opened in New York, Russia officially banned screenings of the film. In short, the film is a farcical take on the squabbles, power grabs, backstabs, crimes, tricks, infidelities and general self-interest-seeking that occurred among the members of Stalin’s inner circle—including Nikolai Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russel Beale)—following the dictator’s death in 1953. It has been noted that other films about Stalin’s death have been allowed to screen in post-Soviet Russia, most of which were negative (including one in which he is played by Robert Duvall). But the perceived hazard that arises with The Death of Stalin seems to be less based in the portrayal of events than in the absurd world into which they’ve been transported through Scottish director Armando Iannucci’s wickedly humorous vision.
In her review for the New Yorker, Masha Gessen answers the question “What made the film so dangerous?” by supposing that it was the pervasive absurdity, above all, that undermined its standing with Russian authorities. But if portraying Khrushchev and Stalin as absurd is perceived as threatening, it implies that there’s some kind of seriousness in need of preservation—or perhaps that there is face to be saved when an often tragic political heritage is cheapened at the hands of a Western artist and audience. Some saw it as a political move; one advisor to the Ministry of Culture rather bluntly considered the film a fixture in a Western plan to cause “rifts in society.” Although Putin’s harkening to the nationalist interests of 19th century Imperial Russia has been sustained in recent years, Stalin’s masculine and authoritarian power does not stray from that vision of Russian power whose legitimacy, in contemporary politics, appears to be at stake for The Death of Stalin. Iannucci was more frank with his views on the meaning in an op-ed for the New York Times: “That they should ban a film making fun of repression is wonderfully ironic…”
Iannucci, known for savagely snide political comedies like his HBO hit Veep, has employed a similar style to his newest film. But how is it possible to make authoritarianism funny? Watching The Death of Stalin, it at first may seem that fear is being transmuted into humor (and vice versa), but just as often, those moments of horror are only delivered by the conventions of humor. Toward the beginning of the film, Lavrentiy Beria, who was promoted from chief of the NKVD to Deputy Premier under Stalin, checks a list of names with him. “They’re a couple, aren’t they?” Stalin says, when instructing him to include both husband and wife on the list. We assume Beria is preparing a dinner party—they’re jolly and smiling—until the camera follows Beria, who hands three pages to three different NKVD officers. “Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it,” he instructs one of them, pointing to the names on the list. The reversal is sharp. We’re prepared to laugh but we grimace: our expectations have been subverted in such a way as to draw out both responses at once.
Through its humor, The Death of Stalin just as thoroughly reveals how the structure of power established by Stalin was quietly perpetuated after his death––even as Iannucci emasculates that power in his reimagining. Stalin’s corpse, though he’s portrayed as boyish while alive, seems to emanate his seeming omnipotence “from the other side.” Even the tyrant’s iconography perpetuates his terror. In several scenes, statues of Stalin loom, monolithic, behind characters as they plot and scheme. Most of the main players have a dispute on the balcony in the hall where Stalin’s funeral is being held; the camera rotates around them as each player adds a line to the cacophony before our gaze lands on Malenkov, with a bronze statue of Stalin towering, unfocused, behind him. Many times, the camera’s focus lingers and deepens onto portraits of Stalin that hang in hallways and parlors.
Toward the beginning of the film, we see each member of Stalin’s inner circle enter the room where the dictator has collapsed in a puddle of his own urine and make various shows of mourning and despair; this is a key part of Iannucci’s balancing act: even when Stalin is not there to witness his advisors’ reactions, and even when Iannucci defangs his body as it lies in its own excrement, his system of power remains (perhaps this is a good example of a place when the film adheres to history only along general lines, since much of its plot is taken from myth, politically charged accounts, etc.). Khrushchev is among those grovelers who soon seem less than motivated to take all necessary measures to prolong Stalin’s life. (The scholar Vladimir Shamberg later wrote: “They thought if he regained consciousness and saw the doctors, he would suspect a plot and have them all executed.”) Steve Buscemi impressively draws out Khrushchev’s latent political decisiveness from someone who had been an at times weak-willed but cruel advisor. When he tells Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), that he’s exiling her, she too realizes his subtle transformation: “I never would have expected this from you.” At the beginning of this film, neither did we.
As Joe Morgenstern wrote in the Wall Street Journal, the dangerous humor with which Iannucci is playing sometimes “misfires.” To convert political horror into comedy might only be possible at the risk of transposing the profundity of mass death, racism, greed and systemic terror into something as trivial as quibbles over funeral decorations. That conversion is confusing and often uncomfortable, but perhaps its whole aim is to have us examine that unease as we squirm in our seats. Part of what makes the viewing experience uncomfortable is the nonchalance with which its scope pans, for example, from Beria’s rapes of young girls to slapstick one-liners about the retouching on Malenkov’s new portrait. It’s at the height of the inner circle’s confusion—and ours—that Old Bolshevist Lazar Kaganovich (played by Dermot Crowley) delivers the one-liner that most resolutely rounds out this sometimes-misplaced dual ambition of Iannucci’s reimagining: “I’ve had nightmares that made more sense than this.”