The Death of Stalin

Events surrounding the 1953 death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin are recounted in The Death of Stalin (2017), a dark and irreverent dramedy written and directed by Armando Iannucci, et al. You’d be wrong if you thought there was nothing funny about a regime responsible for the deaths of 6 to 9 million people. This talented cast perfectly captures the chaotic and absurd at this pivotal moment in Russian history.

Joseph Stalin, born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, was a principal figure in the rise of communism in Russia and served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1952. He led the Soviet Union through World War 2, oversaw massive industrialization and collectivization programs, and instituted state terror to maintain control. After his death, his successors undertook reforms and denounced his crimes.

The Death of Stalin depicts events from the night of Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) cerebral hemorrhage to Nikita Khrushchev’s (Steve Buscemi) coup and the execution of NKVD (Soviet secret police) chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). It portrays how paranoid and aware of their precarious position members of Stalin’s inner circle were, and the struggle to find a leader among a group of frightened sycophants.

Lavrentiy Beria was a truly monstrous figure. As soon as Stalin fell ill, he moved to eliminate his enemies and position himself as Stalin’s successor, while currying favor with the public with a general amnesty for all prisoners. While the helpless and inept Georgy Malenkov (played brilliantly by Jeffrey Tambor) acted as Premier of the Soviet Union, his rivals fought behind the scenes to take control. They made a critical error by putting Nikita Khrushchev in charge of Stalin’s funeral, where he was able to organize a coup with WW2 Soviet military hero Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs).

The Death of Stalin effectively blends comedy, farce, and drama. In one memorable scene, the amnesty order arrives while secret police are executing a line of prisoners. The executioner stops abruptly just before shooting the next man. We see the look of confusion, relief, and disbelief on the prisoner’s face, and can only image how we would feel in that situation. Get that man an Oscar!

While the film omits background information for the sake of brevity, it could have done a better job explaining some elements of the film, such as why Stalin’s doctors were so mistreated. We see Stalin’s advisors reluctantly recall a group of physicians to examine Stalin after his cerebral hemorrhage. Stalin’s son and daughter berate them, while they are afraid to give a diagnosis.

It’s assumed they had been arrested for some unspecified political crime, but Stalin’s hatred and mistrust of doctors was specifically a result of the “Doctors’ Plot” a year earlier, when he accused several Kremlin doctors of allegedly plotting to kill him and put them under arrest. It’s not a critical oversight, but knowing that background adds to the film’s authenticity.

The Russian government predictably hated this film, and revoked its distribution certificate. Russian deputies criticized it for making a mockery of Soviet history, called it “disgusting,” and even accused it of mocking the victims of Stalinism. Is it okay to laugh at terrible or controversial historical events? How far removed from those events do you have to be to find humor in them?

There is a long history of comedians lampooning dictators and dictatorships, using humor to reveal unpleasant truths. Charlie Chaplin released his satire of fascism The Great Dictator (1940) while half the world was at war with Nazi Germany and its allies. Mel Brooks made fun of Nazis and Adolf Hitler in The Producers (1967), only 22 years after Hitler’s death and the end of World War 2. These films are widely considered to be cinema classics. The Death of Stalin fits perfectly with this tradition.

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