Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #18 – The Death of Stalin

Posted: April 25, 2018 in Uncategorized

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Get ready for Julius Caesar with Russian accents or rather since The Death of Stalin follows an ancient film tradition of spoken in English juxtaposed against Russian written on the signs and flower arrangements we’ll skip the Russian accents entirely.

Scene. An orchestra and pianist play Mozart live over Radio Moscow. Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) enjoys the performance in his dacha and calls the station manager wanting a copy of the recording. Ooops! No one had thought to push start on the record cutter.

The station manager runs around frantically because no one denies the “great” man anything. The live audience has mostly left the building and must be replaced. The audiophiles say that the different people will change the acoustics however slightly. It will have to do. The conductor has gone home another must be found. Amid, yet another round of late night roundups of people disappearing into the totalitarian night, a conductor is seized and brought to the radio station in his bathrobe. And they bribe the pianist with 20,000 rubles to play again.

This possibly true to life scene said to have happened in 1944, well before the 1953 death of Stalin, serves as a brilliantly hilarious farcical set piece to open a hilarious movie about the death of one of the world’s great villains. Especially when you consider that the movie has the pianist, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), a real life musician famous for hating Joseph Stalin and barely tolerating his successors, add a nasty note into the record sleeve that in the movie promptly creates the stress that brings on the cerebral hemorrhage or stroke that history says killed Joseph Stalin.

The movie unfolds as a power struggle between Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and NKVD Chief Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Largely because history records that Beria had his hands on the wheel of the many purges throughout Stalin’s Reign of Terror and the filmmakers making no bones about a common belief of ‘absolute power corrupting absolutely’ we quickly start rooting for Nikita Khrushchev as the lesser of two evils. The secret police chief is depicted as using his power over political prisoners to get on with their desperate wives.

The pitch perfect farce and comedic acting of Buscemi and Beale drive a delicious romp through official Soviet Russia intended to make mincemeat of totalitarian government by casting it as necessarily absurd. The contestants must maintain the ear of Deputy Chairman Georgy Malenkov (Jeffery Tambor) depicted as an ineffectual and easily bullied man more interested in photo ops than running a coherent government.

Each man gets in his shots against the other. Beria sends his secret police to take over Moscow security from the Red Army. Khrushchev orders the trains to let mourners into the city forcing Beria’s unprepared men to open fire. Finally, the game turns on making the right deals, promises and outright lies to Field Marshall Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), the head of the Red Army and Conqueror of Berlin. With the army on Khrushchev’s side things go as downhill for the movie version of Beria as quickly as they did for the real life man once described by Stalin as “our Himmler.” Good riddance.

The filmmakers and the French graphic novel on which the movie is based clearly used black farce to grind several axes about the Soviet era and Stalin’s rule. And it shows on screen where the guards hear Stalin drop to the floor and no one enters to check because if you guess wrong about the big man’s health and disturb his sleep…BANG! It shows in Nikita Khrushchev flushing toilets to beat Beria’s bugs and complaining about “fucking apartments!” It shows in the sheer number of extras cinematically executed with pistol shots especially Stalin’s house staff. And in a nasty crack when the Politburo arrives and decides to summon a doctor – “We killed all the good doctors.”

In this absurdist farce played completely straight by everyone in the movie, there is one character that stands out as part of the anti-Soviet symbolism in the movie. Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) infamous as origin of the nickname Molotov Cocktail (firebomb) is played as the only true believer in the room. His wife has been previously rounded up during a midnight purge and held alive by Beria as a bargaining tool and still the man assumes that his wife must be guilty. It takes Mister Buscemi’s Khrushchev to slap him around and admit the previous regime was capricious and did things at a whim, including that Molotov was on the last Enemies List put out before the death. Mister Palin deserves any and all accolades for this small but vital part.

It helps that this story about ambitious men killing each other to further their ambition and survival is set to really great music. Composer Chris Willis creates the tone of the times by creating music that sounds like Sergei Prokofiev and Dimitri Shostakovich could have written them (assuming the Soviet censors would let them be associated with an anti-Soviet movie). It grounds the movie in a time where brutality was great and the art that survived the insanity of the Socialist Realism Movement reaches higher.

With the exception of Mister Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev few of the actors look very much like their real life counterparts as seen on Wikipedia. But, you spend so much time laughing at this perfectly directed and edited farce gifted to us by director Armando Iannucci that you just don’t care.

You’ll laugh hysterically at the movie antics of some of History’s worst people. Family entertainment at its finest.

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