There’s an audacious comic vision at the heart of The Death of Stalin, Armando Iannucci’s first real feature film, which deals with the days and weeks following the demise of Joseph Stalin in 1953. As the country comes to terms with the loss of their leader, and the Central Committee scrambles to negotiate the balance of power, the film outlines a vast comic ensemble drama that includes Steve Buscemi as Nikita Krushchev, Simon Russell Beale as Levrentiy Beria, Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin, Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana Stalin, Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov, Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov and Adrian McLoughlin as Joseph Stalin himself. So dense is the plotting and so nefarious is the intrigue – and so complicated are the political ramifications and motivations for it all – that the film almost inevitably plays as more of a drama than Iannucci’s previous works, filling in a surprising amount of historical detail and period texture just to get its key comic set pieces going. What ensues is often too dark to really be quite convincing as a comedy, but also too comic to ever quite work as a regular period piece either, producing an irreverence with respect to genre that, in its own way, works quite effectively to capture the dissonance and distrust attendant on this transition in Russian history, especially amongst those in political power.
Apparently, Iannucci was motivated to write the film by his travels in Russia, where he noted a residual reverence and sentimentality affixed to Stalin – and Stalin’s image – that simply isn’t possible when it comes to the depiction and dissemination of Hitler in Germany, despite the fact that both dictators perpetrated genocide on a similar scale and with a similar systematicity. As a result, The Death of Stalin often plays as a way of coming to terms with the lingering, haunting afterlife of Stalin’s image, with one of the recurring plot points turning on his famed photograph with Engelsina Markizova, the young girl who became the face of Stalinism’s aspirations to pastoral and bucolic simplicity. First and foremost, Iannucci undermines that abstraction of Stalin to a glossy, soft-focus image by allowing us to hear his voice for almost the first time in Western cinema and culture, in which depictions of Hitler’s voice – both dramatic and comic – have become so commonplace that his spoken mannerisms now exist almost entirely independently of his personality and historical significance. To puncture Stalin’s image even further, however, he’s presented here as speaking in a decidedly “low” English accent, and surrounded by colleages and confreres who traffic in a similar kind of translatlantic vernacular, creating a comic register that often reminded me of Ricky Gervais’ Hitler and Pol Pot sketches in his stand-up comedy. Here, as there, the humour, and incongruity, comes from seeing perpetrators of evil removed from their sublime command over history and reduced to the most casual and colloquial of everyday expressions, as if to challenge the way in which history itself has mystified them.
That demystification of Stalin’s voice is supplemented by Iannucci’s regular comic infrastructure – a motley crew of political lackeys whose approach to their vocation is uniformly purile, infantile, abject and scatological, with many of the key scenes taking place in and around the toilet. The plan to depose Beria, in particular, is devised by Molotov and Krushschev in Molotov’s bathroom, where they flush the cistern repeatedly to avoid being picked up by surveillance bugs, while the coup itself is held in the male toilets of the Kremlin, an appropriate enough venue for a baroque vulgarity that, in Iannucci’s world, is always framed in masculine terms. Within that context, Stalin comes off as a bully as much as anything else, as banal and bathetic in his evil as any of Iannucci’s other characters, if considerably less articulate and charismatic, with many of his early scenes almost passing for a sustained Monty Python sketch, especially with Palin so prominent amongst the cast.
Of course, Stalin himself is gone from the film fairly quickly, and yet he’s even more present and tangible as a body than he is as a person, exuding an abject materiality, physicality and plasticity that continually cuts against his simultaneous existence as a free-floating, disembodied and beneficent image. Some of the most elaborate set pieces involve the Central Committee bickering over his body, trying to transport it from place to place, and attempting to organise it on his bed to preserve some semblance of dignity, while the broader political narrative emerges, initially, around a squabble regarding who will prepare the body for the funeral. Due to the lack of reliable doctors in Stalinist Russia, for the first part of the film it’s unclear whether Stalin is dead at all, leading to a series of surreal set pieces in which the members of the Committee talk to him and peruse his office as if he is dead, using the frisson of that hypothetical space to say and do things that simply wouldn’t thrill them in the same way if they were convinced of him being a corpse. It’s at these moments that The Death of Stalin feels most attuned to the theatre as its natural home, as Stalin’s body takes on an uncanny theatrical import in whichever space it is housed, and perpetually seems on the verge of coming back to life in a sudden or unexpected way. Indeed, Stalin does have a lucid interval before promptly passing away, but any residual suspicion of life is quickly put to rest with the final and visceral disposal of his body, in which the team of subpar doctors who escaped the Gulag pull back his scalp and cut through his skull while the Committee stand around squeamishly, trying to ignore the revolting noises.
Throughout all these sequences, it often feels as if Iannucci is riffing on two distinct versions of Russia that have emerged in popular culture as a reflection of deeper and more latent anxieties about the ongoing survival of the West. First, and perhaps most immediately, The Death of Stalin plays as a kind of comic retort to the Soviet melancholy that has started to suffuse Cold War period drama, and which looks to the former Soviet Union as a harbinger of twenty-first century utopia that never arrived. Second, and more obliquely, Iannucci’s register often recalls the rise of Russia, Communism and the entire hauntology of the Soviet Union as a beloved object on FourChan, YouTube and other sites where viral media is purveyed, where this mode of melancholy is frequently offered as a subject for parody and recombination. Between those two responses lies the paradox of the Soviet Union as it stands in the contemporary Western imagination as simultaneously a corrective to the present but also a justification for the present, and the tone of the film lies somewhere in that juncture as well, never quite able to commit to comedy or to drama – or, rather, promulgating a kind of perversely self-defeating comedy as its main signature. To that end, Iannucci often seems to discover a kind of inherent idiocy in even the most horrifying spectacles, refusing to traffic in the sublimity of Stalin in any way, even if it means divesting him of horror in the process. Nowhere is that clearer than in the depictions of terror, surveillance and interrogation, which are presented just matter-of-factly enough – just another administrative facet of the Kremlin – to fall short of proper dramatic seriousness, but not quite bluntly or with enough deadpan to feel like a recognisable dark comedy either.
That dissonance is clearest when it comes to Iannucci’s depiction of space, with scenes of torture and terror frequently taking place in the background of whatever sequence happens to be unfolding, but without quite adding to, or detracting from, the foreground in any way either. In effect, the film performs a kind of deep focus, and deep focus is always somewhat atonal, overlapping different conversational and conceptual planes into an incommensurate compsite. Navigating that schizoid space often requires the most contorted and contrived conversational acumen from the Central Committee, and the most inspired comic touch of the film lies in its recognition that merely surviving in this political climate requires a sufficiently screwball sense of wordplay that to retain an oblique and even ironic distance from any utterance one might make, for fear of it being taken as an unwitting and unconscious desecration of Stalin. In one of the best scenes, the Committee engages in an endless prevarication around whether pausing arrests is in keeping with Stalin’s legacy or not, in an escalation of different opinions that sees the members raising and lowering their hands in keeping with Molotov’s tortuous and laborious thought process, in what may well be one of the very best and most understated comic sequences in Palin’s big screen career.
If The Death of Stalin has any fault, however, it’s that it doesn’t consistently rise to the occasion of this conversational ingenuity, setting its characters adrift in a world in which screwball is required to forestall terror, but rarely providing them with the screwball wherewithal to navigate it. In some ways, that failure is the subject matter and comic style of the film – inept bureaucrats struggling to inhabit a screwball role – but I couldn’t help finding the dialogue somewhat anticlimactic in comparison with the quite astounding comic ambition of the film as well. To some extent, that’s an issue with Iannucci’s style generally, which often involves characters simply speaking louder, more profanely and more repetitively, rather than opting for the kind of verbal pyrotechnics and ingenuity required here. For that reason, the film ultimately suggests that, for all his achievement with television, Iannucci is not that confident as a cinematic director, especially when it comes to conversational mise-en-scene, with the spaces around his characters here all too often feeling dead, blank or empty. Of course, that works well to capture the sense of always being on display, as well as the need to wrest a world into existence out of the endless play that ultimately constitutes Stalin’s whimsical approach to his party and population. But, for a film that’s so centred on quick succession – the epilogue already anticipates Krushchev’s downfall – the film’s spaces are curiously devoid of momentum, giving the sense of a series of set pieces that are either too long or too short, and that would ultimately have played better as a television series, and might still do so brilliantly, if ever given the opportunity.