The Death of Stalin review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
The satirical nature of The Death of Stalin reminded me greatly of vicious comedy show Spitting Image, a program where puppets portrayed political players as rubber-faced goofs that bicker over current events. While not as overly looney, this historical comedy does tread on similar the ground the way it finds the funny in the fascistic. While not as insightful enough to be worthy of a history class viewing, this film at least finds enough funny stuff with this material for such a talented ensemble.
It’s 1953 and Joseph Stalin has suddenly died. Mere hours after his passing, his various comrades of Soviet allegiance assemble and argue about what to do next. The most immediate thing they bicker on is how to handle the body once it is found, bumbling about the best way to get it out of the room and how to pick up the corpse of Stalin. Once they start deciding who should be in charge, the political affairs swirl as some oppose the choice of Stalin’s replacement while others scheme to overtake the weaker candidates. This bickering starts early especially since Stalin had a list of enemies.
Throughout the picture is a breezy sensation of how fast such a chaotic country proceeds with handling, well, everything. The opening sequence features an orchestra scrambling to finish up a recording that’ll be delivered to Stalin on a strict deadline. There’s a lot of bumbling to make sure everything is perfect, including a last-minute addition of grabbing the poor off the streets to act as an audience that will clap along for the track. It’s amusing how within this tight sequence we see both the fear of the Soviets, the bitterness of the poor, and the fast pace to prep the audience for when things spin off the rails politically.
A fantastic ensemble has been assembled for such a film. Players include the likes of Steve Buscemi, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Tambor, and Michael Palin. Though many are playing historic political players up for laughs, they do at least bring a human enough nature to such a story that sells the dark edge, keeping their tongues firmly within their cheeks. There’s a lot of cute little laughs strung in throughout, as when Buscemi, playing Nikita Khrushchev, is in such a rush to get to Stalin he neglects to take off his pajamas and wears them over his clothes. This somewhat insignificant addition only adds to the fantastically frantic nature of the picture, where there is so much going on one doesn’t even notice how silly they look.
The film also doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of this power struggle. Not at all. There are some truly chilling moments when political players stroll through a church where political prisoners can be heard being executed in the background. Every death here comes with a shout for Stalin and a bang, seeming to occur like clockwork. Yet there’s also an absurdity to the violence of the shifting in power. There are several particular scenes of raids that are either punctuated by unaware civilians or surprise betrayals where the lines of order blur. There’s such madness to how all of this goes down during the arrangements for Stalin's funeral that you can’t help but laugh.
The Death of Stalin no doubt takes liberties with the material and its historical figures, considering it was based on the French graphic novel La Mort de Staline. But the pacing and acting are so damn engrossing that the whole experience is richly comedic of reaping ripe ridiculousness from the scramble of political vultures. Few films of this nature carry such an astute and palpable punch political satire.