As cheesy as it may sound, Armando Iannucci’s “The Death of Stalin” lives up to its tagline: “a comedy of terrors”. That’s exactly what this film is, a mocking look at the immoral inner workings of the Soviet Union during and after Stalin; the “terrors” of Stalin’s oppressive regime are made obnoxious at times, but also treated with solemnity when proper. This can cause some dissonance in viewers who were expecting a full-blown satire (as I was), but there is no denying that “The Death of Stalin” works as both a comedy and a drama, something very difficult to pull off.
The year is 1953 and Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is at the height of his terrifying power — the most horrifying part about it is that whenever he puts someone on “his list” for whatever petty reason, that person must be killed. We’re introduced to this fearsome climate in the masterful first sequence; an orchestra concludes a Mozart piece while Radio Moscow transmits it, but when the lead broadcaster gets word that “Comrade” Stalin promptly demands a recording of the performance, which wasn’t being recorded live, he goes absolutely berserk and tries to get the musicians and the audience back for an encore. While that develops, we are simultaneously taken to dinner with Stalin and his cronies including Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Just like the radio broadcaster, even Stalin’s closest advisors live in everlasting terror of getting marked down on the list; each even tailors their jokes carefully so as to not upset him (every night, Khrushchev writes down which ones worked so he knows how to continue making Stalin laugh). When the Moscow orchestra concludes their encore, the rebellious pianist suddenly slips a note to Stalin with the recording. Stalin reads the note, laughs, and falls dead. This abrupt introduction is both hilarious and suspenseful, letting us know we are in for a rather dark comedy.
“The Death of Stalin” doesn’t show Stalin and his company as blatant caricatures; what makes this movie so funny is how serious it is — or, at least, tries to be. Odd, but true. Everyone in it takes everything so seriously of course, but they are put into pressing situations that evoke their most bizarre responses — that’s where the comedy comes from. Everyone — especially Khrushchev and Beria — is clawing for power after Stalin’s fall, and watching them have at each other is both appalling and humorous. Thankfully, the movie never sells out for slapstick comedy, but the funniest moments in the film are certain boisterous lines of dialogue and whenever characters have cold and serious reactions to things that make us laugh like crazy.
I’m no historian so I went into this without any knowledge of the true events Iannucci meant to satirize, but that never significantly damaged how much I enjoyed it. In terms of personal taste, I’m not big on political drama so it was tough to follow when jargon abounded; but besides that small personal note, this is still one of the funniest movies of the year. Every actor — down to those who play soldiers — gives a hilarious performance, but my favorite has to be Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev. Just having his twangy American persona in something that’s completely the opposite (namely, a Russian political dramedy) is a joy in itself.
The “comedy of errors” ends on a relatively serious note; there is nothing really funny about the final moments, they just show us a little more reality than mockery. While it may feel divergent from the comedy part of the film, this suddenly raw ending successfully leaves us to think about the darker side of things. And that’s good. It’s good when a comedy doesn’t stop at pee-jokes (which abound here) but actually leaves us with enough truth to digest. It’s obvious that Iannucci meant to inform our current culture with the past mistakes of other governments, so ending his movie in a somber fashion is much more appropriate than ending it lightly.