I was expecting a much more straight comedy based on the movie’s marketing that what I got, but while the movie is often uproariously funny, it’s still the story of a handful of awful people fighting to the death for control of the living corpse that was Soviet Russia. The comedy is there, not for no reason, but because it helps highlight the absolute absurdity of the overall situation but it also brings to the fore the strong personalities involved.
Like most Russian literature, I have trouble keeping Russian names straight in The Death of Stalin. I remember that in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment that there are two main characters whose names start with R, but one has a k somewhere in the middle while the other looks flat from the second letter on. That’s how I kept those characters straight while reading, and I kind of had a similar experience while watching this. Other than a handful of names (Stalin, Molotov, and Khrushchev) I was lost in a sea of syllables I couldn’t recall, so the use of both well known and easily distinctive actors was a very good idea, helping me get used to names to place with easily identifiable faces rather quickly.
We also spent a lot more time with Stalin than I was expecting. Based on the trailers, I estimated that Stalin died within the first five minutes and the rest of the movie was vulgar bickering between the Politburo with no clear path forward. Those trailers were incredibly deceptive, but in a way that I really appreciate. What the trailers hid was a rather intelligent synthesis of the events at the highest levels of Soviet power in the first moments of post-Stalin Russia. In order to sell that, though, the movie needed to sell the final days of Stalin ruled Russia, and it does that very well with a view of a Stalinist purge being carried out alongside the camaraderie between the main players in the upcoming drama (Molotov, Khrushchev, Beria, and Malenkov) where we can sense the hidden animosities buried just underneath the surface.
The confusion and forced mourning over Comrade Stalin’s death very quickly gives way to politicking and scheming, especially on the parts of Khrushchev and Beria, while Malenkov has the power of Stalin awkwardly placed upon him, a man unequal to the task of handling the Politburo full of schemers. It’s a war of words and whispers that breaks out as both Khrushchev and Beria work to undermine the other, both assuming (rather rightly) that Malenkov is simply too weak for the position. In the middle is Molotov, whose wife Beria returns after several years of punishment for sedition (either very clear or unproven depending on who’s listening) while he feels more inclined to support to more reform minded Khrushchev.
The movie is at it’s funniest when people are insulting each other. My favorite is when Stalin’s son Vasily yells at one of the doctors brought in to examine his father that he is mostly made of hair, but, in terms of laugh per aggressive sneer, it’s Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov that takes the cake. He’s wonderfully entertaining as he Yorkshire growls through every insult in every direction while cheerily joining Khrushchev against Beria because Beria undermined Zhukov’s authority as his first act after Stalin’s death.
As with all movies based on history, I assume this is about 90% ahistorical, but The Death of Stalin, seems to capture the truth of the moment really well. It’s a complete power vacuum as the central authority dies. There are protocols in place to try and smooth over the transition of power, but it’s obvious from the start that the protocol will mean nothing when faced with the reality of power in the Soviet Union. The only thing keeping the letter of the law remotely alive (as excerpted in title cards throughout the film) is the memory of the fallen leader. It’s a pretext for civility that hardly masks the incivility that guides every player’s actions.
Another smaller thing that the film does really well is capture the absolute terror of simply living in the Soviet Union. Molotov (played wonderfully by Michael Palin) cheerfully denounces his wife as worthy of her punishment in front of her because saying otherwise could send him to the gulag. The director of the radio program that transmits the Moscow’s philharmonic completely recreates a performance because Stalin called and asked for a recording (after the performance ended) and he hadn’t recorded it. And, the most simple and elegant example, the guards outside of Stalin’s room refuse to check on their dear leader after the obvious sound of a falling body because to disturb Stalin while sleeping meant death.
This is some of the most entertaining history, especially history that is so cruel and hideous, I’ve seen in a long while. Wonderfully acted, consistently funny, and alternately terrifying, The Death of Stalin is a marvelous look into a pocket of history with world shaping results.