Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘The Death of Stalin’: Get Inspired About America

1h 47min

Writer-director Armando Iannucci, who created HBO’s political satire “Veep,” has with “The Death of Stalin” created a period satire that shines a light on the scrambling, flailing, and power grabs of the political cockroaches and cronies in Joseph Stalin’s inner circle, immediately following his death. It feels pretty timely in light of our current political chaos.

a concerto audience in The Death of Stalin
Audience at a piano concerto, with Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi, C), in “The Death of Stalin.” (Entertainment One Films)

The events surrounding the 1953 death of Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin)—the second leader of the Soviet Union—starts off with a scene in a concert hall, where a piano concerto has just been performed.

Stalin, who’d been listening to it on the radio, calls up the concert venue and demands a recording. However, nobody’d thought to make a recording, so the horrified sound engineer rushes out and bullies the departing crowd back into their seats, and wheedles, cajoles, and threatens the pianist (Olga Kurylenko) to re-do the whole concert. Saying “no” to comrade Stalin would, of course, mean immediate execution. On his watch, death squads are perennially rounding up “enemies” and shooting them.

The Death of Stalin
Men awaiting execution in a labor camp in “The Death of Stalin.” (Entertainment One Films)

Stalin soon undergoes the titular death, which looks heart attack-ish. Then, members of his Central Committee—Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi); Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin); Field Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), who is leader of the Red Army; and Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the mealy-mouthed secretary who takes charge—immediately start up a political version of a rugby scrum. They vie for power with all manner of jealousy, posturing, subterfuge, thinly veiled threats, outright threats, doublespeak, backstabbing, and mercurially shifting alliances.

four men stand around dead body in The Death of Stalin
(L–R) Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse), and Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) try to appear dismayed at Stalin’s apparent death, in “The Death of Stalin.” (Entertainment One Films)

Best positioned to replace Stalin is Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), chief of the secret police. The sadistic (and pedophiliac) Beria’s snide and bullying behavior does not endear him to the rest of the Stalin administration, and he’s soon targeted for a takedown.

two men, one woman, and casket in The Death of Stalin
(L–R) Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Maria Veniaminovna Yudina (Olga Kurylenko), and Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) view Stalin’s body, in “The Death of Stalin.” (Entertainment One Films)

No Russian Accents

The entire cast use their natural accents, which range from posh British to Cockney to Tambor’s and Buscemi’s American, with no attempted Russian accents anywhere, which puts it all somewhat in a Monty Python milieu, a feeling that is heightened, naturally, by the presence of Python emeritus Michael Palin in the cast.

Iannucci doesn’t take the tragedy of the story lightly; we do hear gunshots galore. But all the gunshots combined with the constant, bumbling attempts of politicians to feign woe and grief about Stalin’s death while being secretly delighted, and the constant attempts to avoid saying anything that can be misconstrued by colleagues in the insidious way that communism loves to misconstrue—it all eventually functions, again, as a running gag with a distinctly Python-ian flavor, thereby highlighting the absurdity of communism.

Five men surround casket in The Death of Stalin
(L–R) Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse), Lazar Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley), Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and Nikolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi) preside at Stalin’s funeral, in “The Death of Stalin.” (Entertainment One Films)

The following bit of Python-ism, reworked slightly, could have easily fit in the script:

Dennis (Eric Idle): “What I object to is you automatically treat me like an inferior.”

King Arthur (Graham Chapman): “Well I am king.”

Dennis: “Oh, king eh? Very nice. And how’d you get that, eh? By exploiting the workers. By hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society.”

Pallbearers carry coffin in The Death of Stalin
Pallbearers (first two visible, L–R) Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), in “The Death of Stalin.” (Entertainment One Films)

Compare it to the real script:

(Zhukov punches Beria):

Field Marshal Zhukov: Want a job done properly, you call the army. Take his belt off. It’s hard to run away with your pants falling down.

Nikita Khrushchev: (to Malenkov) If you want to talk to General Zhukov, now’s your opportunity.

Zhukov: Spit it out, Georgy. Staging a coup here.

Georgy Malenkov: He’s got a knife by his ankle.

Lavrentiy Beria: You’re a disgrace!

Lazar Kaganovich: Give his head a good kicking. Make you feel better.

Vyacheslav Molotov: All in good time.

Lavrentiy Beria: Oh, I’m gonna enjoy peeling the skin from your self-satisfied face.

Zhukov: (holds up the little knife and scoffs) Not with that, you won’t.”

Military man with rifle in The Death of Stalin
Field Marshal Zhukov, leader of the Red Army (Jason Isaacs, front with rifle), in “The Death of Stalin.” (Entertainment One Films)

Did It Go This Way?

The real death of Stalin most certainly didn’t go like it’s portrayed here, but who really knows how much backstabbing went on? How many of his supporters instantaneously morphed into power-addicted madmen?

For those unfamiliar with the extent of Stalin’s dedication to the staggering death count of his fellow countrymen and women, “The Death of Stalin” is a painless way to take this bitter pill of knowledge. Basically, if Russians weren’t being arrested or shot dead in the streets, they were on one of Stalin’s lists to either be executed or sent to the Siberian Gulags.

All of the above is, as mentioned, deeply farcical with sight gags galore, but since it’s grounded in a fair amount of political reality, if you’re feeling the need to have a “history lesson” without getting depressed by the utter horror and sickness of the reality, “The Death of Stalin” is not a bad way to go. It’s also a good primer for what America can look forward to if we don’t abide by our Constitution.

Three men in a car in The Death of Stalin
(L–R) Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse), and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), in “The Death of Stalin.” (Entertainment One Films)

‘The Death of Stalin’
Director: Armando Iannucci
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Simon Russell Beale, Olga Kurylenko
Running Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Rating: R
Release Date: Sept. 8, 2017
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years’ experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.

July 23, 2021 5:00 pm

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