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Non-Review Review: The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin is an ambitious tonal mishmash.

The Death of Stalin is funny and smart. It is a very well observed comedy of errors set against the backdrop of the power struggle that unfolds against the backdrop of the passing of the eponymous Soviet dictator. Officials, relatives and hangers-on all jockey for position, scrambling over one another to secure their place on top of the heap. “How can you scheme and run at the same time?” Lazar Kaganovich challenges Nikita Khrushchev at one point during the film, a line that sets the tone for the ensuing madcap chaos.

Fools Russia in.

However, The Death of Stalin struggles to find the right pitch for its political shenanigans. Based on historical events, The Death of Stalin juxtaposes the sly and transparent manoeuvrings of its central characters against depictions of real-life historical violence and brutality. The Death of Stalin is very candid about the collateral damage incurred by these sorts of regimes, as well it should be. The Death of Stalin would be wrong to gloss over the human cost of its political jousting. At the same time, these brutal beats undercut the movie’s broader slapstick comedic plotting.

The Death of Stalin is charming and endearing in places, but it struggles to find a proper tone. The Death of Stalin is at once too dark to work as a broad farce and too light to play as a pitch black comedy. The result is a movie that feels far too unbalanced and unhinged, with brilliant moments and great performances that never manage to find a consistent groove.

Sorry state of affairs.

In some ways, The Death of Stalin works best as a collection of broad sketches set against the title premise, a series of short vignettes looking at the various possible intersections and coalitions that formed and dissolved in the days around the passing of the tyrant. In some respects, the casting of Michael Palin in the supporting role of Vyacheslav Molotov seems almost aspirational; some of the better moments in The Death of Stalin have a decidedly Monty Python tone to them. In particular, the opening sequence plays like a demented comedy sketch of life in a dictatorship.

There are several of these sequences within the movie, often playing like short films featuring a large ensemble cast. Certain actors and characters provide narrative threads that loop through these scenes to provide an overaching sense of continuity. Other actors and characters drift into and out of the narrative as needed. The Death of Stalin has any number of great performances, some of which are very detached from the central story. Paddy Considine only appears in the first ten minutes, but makes a great impression. Jason Isaacs shows up half way through and steals the show.

A Considine delight.

There is an endearing sense of surrealism to the best sequences of The Death of Stalin, with various performers either keeping their own distinctive voices or affecting exaggerated non-Russian accents. As Nikita Khrushchev and Georgy Malenkov, Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor speak in their own American accents. As General Georgy Zhukov, Jason Isaacs puts on a delightfully goofy Yorkshire accent. The characters speak in colloquial English, a delightfully odd choice for the Russian setting. “The look on your fookin’ face,” Zhukov declares after one mean practical joke.

These creative choices suggest that The Death of Stalin is being pitched as a broad allegory more than a historical record. The Death of Stalin is a story about power and politics that extends beyond its particular setting, the distinctly British and American cast lending a universal sensibility to this specific story. In The Death of Stalin, it is rare for two characters to speak to one another in the same accent, let alone to affect a Russian accent. In this respect, The Death of Stalin plays almost as a metaphor about the politics of fear and intimidation, of regime change and continuity.

Stalin for time.

However, these broad elements are juxtaposed against more specific details. For all that The Death of Stalin pitches itself as a broad farce, it pays a great deal of attention to the historical record. The film is based on the graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, adapted from a teleplay by Nury himself. As such, The Death of Stalin bounds from the goofy awkwardness of trying to change places in the middle of a funeral procession to repeated scenes emphasising brutal physical and sexual abuse committed by a primary character.

In theory, it is possible to maintain this delicate balance in terms of storytelling. It is possible to construct a compelling and engaging comedy about something that is very serious and very real. Four Lions comes to mind, an absurd and surreal comedy about something horrific and unsettling. However, it requires a lot of care and finesse. A film dealing with this sort of material needs to be funny without being trivial, to be honest without being earnest. The Death of Stalin struggles to strike the right tone in this respect.

Aye see which way this is going.

The Death of Stalin is very candid about the brutality upon which its central farce is based. The movie devotes extended sequences to mass executions and brutal killings, making it clear that there is a very real human cost to all of this scheming and jockeying. This is perfectly fair. In fact, it would arguably be cynical or irresponsible for The Death of Stalin to dance around these elements, to avoid acknowledging the horrors inflicted on this population during this transition.

However, these sequences never mesh with the absurd comedy of manners and errors that plays out involving the primary cast. A stronger movie would find a way to play up this dissonance, to integrate jokes about girdles and groupthink with depictions of sexual assault and torture. Instead, The Death of Stalin stumbles clumsily through these transitions. Indeed, its earnestness occasionally feels cynical and cheap. In a comedy populated by unlikable characters, Lavrentiy Beria almost comes across as a cartoon villain.

A (com)radical idea.

That said, The Death of Stalin is smart and funny. When it works, it really works. The movie captures the absurdity and the surreality of this transition of power, the desperation and the manipulation of men desperately clinging on to what little power they hold, seemingly unaware that all they are doing is lining themselves up for another brutal transition down the line. The Death of Stalin perfectly captures the inherent contradictions of this style of politics, of the pointlessness and cynicism of such systems.

Unfortunately, The Death of Stalin never quite connects this absurdity back down to the very real and very human consequences of these plots and schemes on the real people, despite its attempts to do so. The Death of Stalin tries very hard to bridge the gap between those trying to secure their authority in government and those living in the shadow of that government, but never quite succeeds. The opening sequence of The Death of Stalin captures the harrowing absurdity of this situation to sublime effect, but the rest of the movie struggles to build on that or even to match it.

Friend or foe.

The Death of Stalin is a charming slapstick farce, except when it isn’t. Unfortunately, it never figures out what it wants to be in toto. In many ways, it reflects the worst fears of what the Soviet Union might be without Comrade Stalin; a collection of brilliant ideas and very clever plans that never coheres into a functional whole.

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2 Responses

  1. Sounds interesting

  2. Sound very weird!

    P. S. “…eponymous Russian dictator” – Soviet, not Russian.

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