Armed with a sheaf of papers and dressed in a tidy three-piece suit, the manager calmly but briskly lays out the tasks for that evening. There’s a line of men in front of him and, one by one, he thrusts a piece of paper into each of their hands, peers through his pince-nez, then takes a moment to clarify exactly what he wants done. ‘Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it,’ he instructs, pointing at a name on the list. ‘Oh and this one,’ he says to the second man. ‘Kill him, take him to his church, dump him in the pulpit.’ The third man apparently doesn’t need such micromanaging. ‘Hmm,’ says the manager. ‘I’ll leave the rest up to you.’
This is an early scene from The Death of Stalin, where the ‘Spymaster,’ Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria (Simon Russell Beale) is doling out Stalin’s lists of people to be killed that evening. Like most of the film, this is drawn from true events. These lists existed; regular, sanctioned murder was an everyday reality. This scene is horrific. But it’s also hilarious.
Dark comedy becomes infinitely more challenging when it is tangled up with true events – and The Death of Stalin, which, as the title suggests, centres around the circumstances and immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death, couldn’t be more deeply embedded in this category.
Dark comedy becomes infinitely more challenging when it is tangled up with true events.
The film, written and directed by Armando Iannucci (Veep, The Thick of It), is based off a French graphic novel, La mort de Staline, written by Fabien Nury and illustrated by Thierry Robin. Both texts delight in poking fun at the deceased dictator and the farcical power struggle his death provoked. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the intricacies of Soviet-era politics, there are enough recognisable names to make you go ‘aha!’, and enough outlandish events to make you wrinkle your brow, fall down a Wikipedia hole, then emerge on the other side mortified to learn that all the most left-field, had-to-be-made-up scenes were, in fact, fact.
We see Stalin’s drunkard son Vasily (Rupert Friend) frantically training a new ice hockey team to cover up the role he played in the air crash that killed the previous team, his grumpy abuse littered with British slang (‘Play better, you clattering fannies! Get it! Givvit!’). Numerous shots are peppered with inventive tortures being inflicted on a never-ending stream of victims in the background – with one standout being a man tied to a log being rolled down some stairs. All of it gives and it takes – gasp-inducing truth infused with laugh-out-loud humour.
In another scene, an elderly doctor is walking his dog when the full force of the government descends upon him. As I watched him attempt to very slowly run away, I’m quietly confident that I experienced the full range of human emotion – I laughed, felt guilty about laughing, worried about what would happen to his dog, then laughed again.
Take jokes like this in isolation, and you might find yourself in risky territory. It’s hard on paper to imagine such hilarity and hijinks coming from this horrific history. How can the constant threat of execution be funny? Why are we laughing at an autopsy? The key here is that the film and the graphic novel are firmly, clearly, punching up. They’re making mockery of a monster.
It’s hard on paper to imagine such hilarity and hijinks coming from this horrific history. How can the constant threat of execution be funny?
In the same spirit as Inglourious Basterds, Team America: World Police and Danger 5, who take aim at Hitler, Kim Jong Il and Hitler again, The Death of Stalin takes a skew-whiff look at true events, then uses humour and eccentricity to ridicule someone history has almost unanimously decided was A Bad Guy. Audiences can tolerate a Stalin with an overblown British accent and a hammy collapse more than they would a Winston Churchill with a squeaky voice in a banana costume. Complex figures get The Crown and The Iron Lady – dictators get thrown through the same plate glass window in every episode of Danger 5.
Bending the truth surrounding famous figures is not uncommon in pop culture and literature –Doctor Who is particularly fond of this narrative device, retconning Queen Victoria as a werewolf and explaining away Agatha Christie’s mysterious disappearance with giant bees. It’s fraught territory however, that needs to be very carefully navigated. If the person is depicted basically as they were: fine. Agatha Christie plus giant bees is all good, so long as the Christie on screen is representative of the Christie who existed in real life. If instead they had decided on an Agatha Christie portrayed as a cannibalistic murderous robot however: less fine. It works the same the other way around – a film depicting Hitler as a puppy-loving misunderstood vegetarian artist who has been tarred by history would also be very much the wrong thing to do.
Artistic licence about real people is only effective when built on a foundation of truth; from there we can debate whether an unflattering portrayal is a disrespectful desecration of a good person’s memory, or a warranted takedown of a tyrant. It’s one thing to have Stalin, murderer of millions, surrounded by his small council who are hesitant to touch him as he lies ‘in a puddle of indignity’. It’s quite another to have Elvis Presley roaming the streets of Louisiana eating cats (a regular occurrence in Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries, the books that inspired True Blood).
Artistic licence about real people is only effective when built on a foundation of truth.
That The Death of Stalin manages simultaneously to be hugely ridiculous and yet still somewhat accurate is a remarkable achievement by both Iannucci and Nury. In the film we are introduced to most of the characters before learning who they are, which means that each reveal takes on extra comedic value. Steve Buscemi, as the most quintessentially Buscemi character who ever Buscemied, is actually Nikita Khrushchev. Michael Palin plays Vyacheslav Molotov – yes, that Molotov. Despite being set in Russia in the 1950s, everyone speaks in exaggerated British and American accents, but that’s okay; the film is so deliberately silly that the anachronisms don’t jerk you out of your suspension of disbelief.
In between the quips and urination jokes, The Death of Stalin, in both of its forms, never loses sight of the fact that these were real people who had real, and often negative, impact on the world around them – in particular, displaying a subtle sympathy for Stalin’s family. The film homes in on his daughter, Svetlana, who, as events spiral out of control, says with exasperation, ‘I may as well just shoot myself, like mother.’ The graphic novel fleshes out her story more, showing her grieving for a lover sent by her father to the Gulag. Vasily’s history is also explored with more depth, highlighting his crimes and military blunders, as well as including a darker take on his mother’s apparent suicide; ‘Do you know where the gun was?’ says an institutionalised Vasily. ‘In [Stalin’s] hand.’
As the scheming begins to reach its climax in the film, the contrast between serving ego and facing reality is ramped up. Georgy Maximilianovich Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), who has taken over as leader, becomes increasingly obsessed with his appearance and is more worried that people will discover he’s started wearing a corset than he is about the accidental gunning down of civilians trying to attend Stalin’s funeral. Beria and Khrushchev, meanwhile, amp up the bloodshed in their power struggle. Ultimately, all the laughs are born from the ridiculous scenarios created by vain men and their self-serving agendas.
While it’s impossible to make a blanket statement about what is and isn’t okay to joke about, serious men who do unforgivable things hate to be mocked – and so every laugh, every silly scenario, is a tiny chip taken out of a horrifying legacy. And that’s how it should be.
The Death of Stalin is in cinemas now.