History has provided us with two great death scenes that play like farce.
One was the heroic end of Lord Nelson at Trafalgar, an admiral who had signaled his fleet that “England expects every man to do his duty.” Wounded and bleeding out in the battle that followed, he repeated, to every man who came to attend to him, “Thank god I have done my duty!” He literally grabbed men by the lapels to ensure his “last words” were written down thusly. Over and over again.
How Monty Python missed spoofing that is beyond me.
The other hilarious passing was the farce that surrounded the last hours of the ruthless, paranoid and genocidal Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1953. A country run by men so paranoid that they sought to seize power simply to ensure that they wouldn’t be killed by a rival in the sure-to-follow purges, it was morbid, dark and low comedy captured memorably in Premier Nikita Khruschev’s memoir, “Khruschev Remembers,” and later in the comic book, “The Death of Stalin.”
That’s what the folks who gave us the acrid comedy “In the Loop” adapted in bringing “The Death of Stalin” to the big screen — a comic book. And just to be sure we understood how they were handling this Great Death, they included a member of Monty Python in the cast.
“Stalin” is a morbidly hilarious back-dealing/coup-planning/body-disposing farce that treats the monster with the respect he so richly deserves. If it’s not the unimpeachable Gospel truth of how he died — it’s close enough. It should be shown in history classes. Especially in Russia.
In this country, it’s a helpful reminder of why all right-thinking Americans hate these bastards. You’d have to be a traitor to get in bed with the once-and-future Bolsheviks.
Steve Buscemi, in the role of a lifetime, plays Khruschev — a central committee member valued by Stalin, he is sure, for his jokes — his jocularity. Damned if Buscemi doesn’t manage this with aplomb. Add a little belly padding and he doesn’t have to fake one of those “Red Sparrow” accents. We totally buy in that’s he the paranoid, back-stabbing insider who comes off as the most reasonable of those whom Stalin set up as his heirs.
Not that Stalin picked one.
The movie begins with the old man’s latest tidal wave of purges, rounding up “enemies of the state” and “traitors to the Party.” Stalin (British actor Adrian McLoughlin) has already had the smartest, the best doctors, virtually everybody who could threaten him, rounded up and either shot or sent to a Siberian gulag.
Among those on “the list” this time is his longtime foreign minister, Molotov (Michael Palin) who guided the USSR’s foreign policy during World War II and lent his name to the bottle bomb “cocktail” that poorly-armed militants use against armies, even today.
The theoretical second in command and heir to the throne, as it were, is the bumbling, always-saying-the-wrong-thing, lucky-he-hasn’t-been-purged Georgy Malenkov, Chairman of the Council of Ministers. He is played with a hapless/clueless “Don’t talk to me that way!” befuddlement by the hilarious Jeffrey Tambor.
But the power behind Stalin figures to be the power behind Malenkov, the man who runs the vast secret police state, oversees the purges and keeps dossiers on EVERYbody — Lavrenti Beria.
The great British stage actor Simon Russell Beale (seen in “My Cousin Rachel”) plays Beria as a venal ogre. His jokes are cruel and always at the expense of others. His sexual tastes put every pretty young woman within his sight within his brutish power. And he’s not given to leaving torture to his minions. He wouldn’t cheat himself of that fun.
This is one of the screen’s most magnificent portraits of Hannah Arendt’s “The Banality of Evil,” a pudgy omnipotent monster so cunning he is minutes and then hours ahead of his rivals in learning of Stalin’s debilitating stroke, capitalizing on it and consolidating his power by flattering and bullying the jelly-spined Malenkov.
“There are procedures in place,” Malenkov notes, referring to the “Articles” spelled out in the Soviet constitution — glimpsed as inter-titles between chapters of the ongoing farce. “Article VI:iii, The Body will lie in state in the Hall of Columns for Three Days.”
Co-writer/director Armando Iannucci and his team conjure up an “Animal Farm” of entitled killers, protected by “laws” which, of course they suspend, willy nilly, to suit their needs, murder their rivals and oppress the ignorant, Stalin-adoring masses. The proletariat wanted him to Make Russian Great Again, and in their minds, Stalin did.
Olga Kurylenko plays a concert pianist ordered (with the entire audience, and orchestra) to repeat a concert they’ve just broadcast so that it can be recorded. Because Stalin called the broadcast booth and demanded a recording, 19 minutes after the concert began. And they weren’t recording it.
It is her enraged note to the dictator that sets off the choking stroke that fells him (not history).
Stalin’s spoiled, tyrannical daughter (Andrea Riseborough, fierce) and drunken, Army officer in charge of the hockey team son (Rupert Friend, hiccuping hilarity) are as real as any history book can make them — heirs to be coddled, cosseted and pushed aside.
And then there’s the third act arrival of the one man above it all, Zhukov, the “generalissimo” who “saved” Mother Russia during the “Great Patriotic War.” To say Jason Isaacs shows up and chews up the role, the scenery and the movie in this Larger than Life turn is not giving his dentist his due.
“What’s a war hero got to do to get LUBRICATED around here?”
But it is Buscemi, a lifetime of weasel roles behind him, who carries “The Death of Stalin.” He keeps Khruschev teetering on the knife edge of fear — so careful about his interactions with Stalin that he debriefed every long evening they all spent together watching John Wayne/John Ford Westerns to his wife — which jokes worked, which insults would never be forgiven.
Buscemi’s got the face of a worrier, and in this, playing Russia’s greatest weasel, he gives one of his great performances. We don’t have to hear Molotov declare, “You look like you’re about to be bulldozed into a lime pit!” to see the thin ice Buscemi’s little Nikita is skating on. It’s all in his his darting eyes, his quick reversals and recoveries, his carefully chosen moments of assertion.
I loved Palin’s take on Molotov, too, suggesting a man so addled by his near-arrest, his wife’s long-ago conviction and arrest and her sudden post-Stalin release that he doesn’t know who to denounce and who to endorse.
He’s not alone. A great running gag? Committee meetings where everything is be to agreed upon unanimously, but none of the six old vipers gathered around the table has the guts to fully raise his hand until he’s seen other hands go up first. Great way to govern.
Most everybody in the farce has his or her mercurial tirade, her or his moment of terror and doubt. The comic energy flags in the middle acts, but as things take a turn for their darkest in the latter scenes, “Death of Stalin” evolves — briefly — into a ticking clock thriller, with brinkmanship, gamesmanship and marksmanship.
And a staggering body count, all vital elements in the first great movie of the year.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, violence and some sexual references
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Rupert Friend
Credits:Directed by Armando Iannucci, script by Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows, based on Fabien Nury/Thierry Robin comic book. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:46