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The Marx druthers
First the absurd events were real. Then they passed into solemn history. Then they became a French graphic novel and now Armando Iannucci has made the movie THE DEATH OF STALIN. Camus relishes the comedy and briefly muses on the nature of power…
 
  "By the time The Death of Stalin finally comes out, we've had Trump, and the parallels are just... Anyone Stalin disagreed with was called an enemy of the people, you were criminalised. Trump calls you 'fake news' and 'unpatriotic'. It's that same tendency of someone who wants to run the country by himself, not wanting anyone to oppose him. I find it disturbing."
  The Independent newspaper interview with
co-writer and director Armando Iannucci*

 

Apologies for being a bit late to this particular (political) party but The Death of Stalin is still in cinemas as I write so to save you time, off you jolly well. Do you really need a synopsis? As titles go, this one's a ‘does what it says on the tin'. In the early fifties, a Russian political giant dies and all of his underlings have to figure out how the power structure will manifest itself in the vacuum created by his death. It's Yes, Minster with punch lines and sherry replaced by gun sights and Stolichnaya. Fuck up here and your life is worth the price of a bullet and it's over in a muzzle flash.

Iannucci is not alone in finding the forty-fifth President of the United States disturbing. The least distressing thing about him (but it still bugs me) is that he has gone so far beyond unintentional parody, real parody finds its usually bounteous munitions box empty. You cannot make a ridiculous, immoral, shrewd but hopelessly naïve and petty narcissist any worse than he actually is. It's like trying to make water wetter. John Oliver's US show, HBO's Last Week Tonight is now just making factual statements, with well written comedic asides, about a man whose mind works like a malign wasp in a garden on a blustery day wondering what flower to land on and who to sting because of a slight so slight, it wouldn't even cast a hairline shadow. Here's the President's reaction to astronaut Buzz Aldrin's quote after Trump signed an executive order to re-establish the National Space Council. Aldrin said in some triumph, "To infinity and beyond..." a reference which most west-based people, adults and children, would get. Not so, Trump. Aldrin watched bemused as Trump then followed the Toy Story quote with this random brain dump of unmatched vacuity; "This is infinity here. It could be infinity. We really don't know here. But it could be. It has to be something – but it could be infinity, right?" Trump's thoughts seem to be an extemporaneous and improvised mind-cyclonic jerk (emphasis on the jerk) with the over-riding narrative – that must be adhered to – of "I win, you lose." There doesn't seem to be any honesty or integrity connected to or associated with his character and like mud, this man's contempt for what normal people hold dear, will stick and he will make our world poorer for it. If a writer created Donald Trump, (in a world that didn't feature the real thing and what a lovely world that would be) he would be laughed out of the room. Trump is light years beyond satire however hard Alec Baldwin works in Saturday Night Live. Keep fighting, people. Like a stubborn stool, he will pass but really the sooner the better.

The state funeral in The Death of Stalin

And then, there is Joseph Stalin. These two men are not exactly comparable but I get where Iannucci is coming from. Communism, in my youth, was regarded as a human ideal that could never work because of humanity's primal drives. And where and when it was enforced, a great many people died because of power plays at the highest – but morally compromised – levels. It was like trying to implement a law to stop a dog licking its lower regions. I know very little about Russian history and wondered all through the movie just how many incidents were true and which were dramatised. In the end, it really doesn't matter. What The Death of Stalin does so well is consign import and nobility to the satirical dustbin. These men (all men, remember) are as petty, scheming, murderous, smart or naïve, nasty, sexually deviant or comical as any group of men will or could be. What was at stake was the vying for the soul of a nation and having the power and will to simply become more and more paranoid as the days progressed. During a certain period, Stalin's paranoia compelled him to make death lists full of people who had slighted him or people whom he believed were actively plotting against him. Here are the main players, most of which feared for their lives as long as Stalin remained in power... It's basically Caligula with added vodka.

Recently accused Jeffrey Tambor plays Georgy Malenkov, Stalin's nominal successor with no more clue as to what's going on than an albatross clocking the Spanish Armada from half a mile up in the air. I only mention the recent Weinsteinian nod because it's current but I am very much aware of how stories like this can get conflated in the wake of a real monster. Regardless of what an hysterical media would have you believe, there are lines between tasteless flirting, touching, groping, sexual assault and rape. Frying in oil any man guilty of any one of these things and society is going to become too sensitive to survive. Saying that, if Weinstein walks after all this then society is injured as badly. So let's just let the chips fall and sift the wreckage once the facts are in. By far the stand out character is the surprisingly bald but utterly compelling Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev. Knowing the actor's oeuvre, it's an absolute delight to see him flex his comedy chops as the man who almost brought us to the brink of a nuclear war with Kennedy at the Bay of Pigs. Buscemi excels as a man desperately trying to find his way and realising that old and tenuous ties to certain people can collectively be the noose in which his potentially vulnerable neck rests. With all the best lines, Buscemi is an entertainment machine. You don't want to regard Reservoir Dogs' Mr. Pink as anything but a comic foil but once you realise that these people are playing for keeps, you keeps quiet. So to speaks.

It's the mark of a class act(or) when a performer can convince you of his terrifying, steel-rod strength of purpose (Dead Man's Shoes) and yet in Stalin, Paddy Considine as Comrade Andreyev, the man in charge at the Moscow radio station, seems in constant and genuine fear of his life. Once you accept that you're living in a society in which you or your family can be taken at any time without due process, it must poison the populace in ways that thankfully Trump hasn't got near – yet. I'd like to think that after the horrors of the 20th century, we'll never go too far down that right turning again. That is a hope and by no means an on-going prediction. Seeing the concrete-stable Angela Merkel in some political hot water and the emergence of the far right in German society doesn't make me feel that my prediction is on any firm ground. Foreign Minister Molotov (thankfully a Russian name that I can spell and pronounce for all the wrong reasons) is played by a scheming Michael Palin who excels in his role of flip-flopping compromiser with a steely and merciless ambition. While Buscemi is centre stage, there is a character to which even he has to defer.

Jason Isaacs as Field Marshal Zhukov

There is one exchange that's golden that keeps reminding me that we will never know anyone well enough in the context of that Soviet society to trust. Enter Field Marshal Zhukov played by Jason Isaacs, fresh from captain duties on Star Trek's Discovery. He's larger than life, wearing more medals than a flotilla of Michael Phelpses and a riot with no holds barred. Isaacs has a ball playing him and that gruff soldiery persona cuts through all the sub-surface scheming with a refreshing zeal. Simon Russell Beale plays the head of the NKVD (the Russian secret police) Lavrentiy Beria. He's a man with the morals of a parasitic wasp... "Shoot her before him and make sure he sees it." Lovely. He's monstrously ambitious. When told that Stalin is actually coming around from his serious affliction, he lets his guard down and glowers and lashes out with frustration. He is also a chronic sexual abuser of children (nice, huh?) He's the bloated spider in the centre of a web unaware that some flies are a little too big, too smart and too ruthless to be devoured or wrapped in silk for later. I must give a nod to Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin, the big man's son. Mostly drunk throughout (if I were Stalin's son, this would be my life choice...) he channels his father's power so ineptly and with so much theatrical swagger, that he commands a minus-level of respect. He announces that he wants to make a speech at his father's funeral to which Buscemi replies "Yeah, and I'd like to fuck Grace Kelly..." Point taken. It's just so much fun seeing actors show us their range as he'd been so dour and love-struck in Homeland as Carrie's friend Peter Quinn. I'd love to believe the glob of returning spit was real (see the film) because the look on his face sells it beautifully.

Iannucci directs with a practical no-nonsense approach with no attention-grabbing tics. He knows what his cast are capable of and lets them get on with it, which they do with exquisite comic timing which in no way takes the edge off a regime which was monstrous even by today's standards. In the deliciously darkly comic The Death of Stalin, the Grim Reaper is around every corner, the spine-slipped blade glints in a plot whisper, the chambered bullet on every hip is just waiting for its moment and the law adds up to frightened men banding together, compromising their beliefs and ideals in order to despatch each other for their own advancement. It's a perfect and depressing commercial for the human race never so pertinent than it is today. It's also a hoot. Have fun. That's an order.

 


* http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/armando-iannucci-interview-the-death-of-stalin-donald-trump-brexit-a8009386.html

The Death of Stalin poster
The Death of Stalin

UK | France 2017
106 mins
directed by
Armando Iannucci
produced by
Nicolas Duval Adassovsky
Kevin Loader
Laurent Zeitoun
Yann Zenou
written by
Armando Iannucci
David Schneider
Ian Martin
Peter Fellows
based on the comic book by
Fabien Nury
Thierry Robin
cinematography
Zac Nicholson
editing
Peter Lambert
music
Christopher Willis
production design
Cristina Casali
starring
Jason Isaacs
Olga Kurylenko
Andrea Riseborough
Steve Buscemi
Rupert Friend
Jeffrey Tambor
Paddy Considine
Richard Brake
Michael Palin
Simon Russell Beale

UK distributor
Entertainment One UK
UK release date
20 October 2017
review posted
21 November 2017

related review
The Armando Iannucci Shows

See all of Camus' reviews