With The Death of Stalin, director Armando Iannucci has created something very special and that is exceedingly difficult to achieve: a perfectly balanced tragicomedy. Usually such films either veer more towards comic whimsy, like Little Miss Sunshine (2006), or woeful misfortune, like Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1996). In The Death of Stalin, Iannucci has imbued almost every frame with horror and farcical comedy, but in such a way that most of the time you can’t totally give yourself over to one or the other. It’s an experience as exhilarating as it is irresolvable.
The Death of Stalin derives much of its power from the simple fact that many of the absurd—often borderline insane—episodes depicted in the film are based on events that actually happened. The opening scene sets the tone for everything that follows: pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) is performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 before a live audience and throughout the USSR via Radio Moscow. Premiere Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin) is tuned in. He’s always listening; he has ears everywhere. Stalin phones the concert hall to demand a recording of the performance. Military personnel have been dispatched to retrieve the vinyl reproduction posthaste. Click. Conversation over.
Only problem is, no recording was made, nor had one even been planned—not to mention the concert has just ended. But as everyone knows, Stalin does not do “Nyet.” Concert producer Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) has to scramble. Lives could literally be at risk. Exits are barred to prevent audience members from leaving. The orchestra is called back, but the conductor faints, falls, and suffers a concussion. A replacement is rousted out of bed in the middle of the night, while Yudina has to be bribed to play, reluctantly, like a hostile witness.
Iannucci’s directorial choices enhance the hyper-absurdity of this world. There’s no attempt to replicate the Russian language, not even the hint of a Ruski accent. Everyone speaks English from their native language perspective—colloquialisms, slang, expletives and all. Bertolt Brecht would approve. Later, seeing Stalin gather the Politburo boys together for a night of vodka and John Ford westerns might seem preposterously ludicrous, but Stalin was known to admire John Wayne for his lone-man heroism.
Casting choices are truly inspired. Let’s face it; Steve Buscemi is not the first actor that comes to mind to play Nikita Khrushchev. Hearing him yapping away with his Brooklyn accent—knowing his character will soon become one of the most powerful men in the world—begins to feel almost normal in this world. Jeffrey Tambor is the other American lead actor in the film. As Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s second in command, he is decidedly not ready to ascend to the role of Dictator-in-Chief. Tambor hilariously embodies Malenkov’s fish-out-of-water awkwardness with artfully beleaguered body language, permanent dog-frown face and flawless comic timing.
Most of the rest of the cast are British, including Monty Python alumnus Michael Palin, who plays Vyacheslav Molotov—yes, that Molotov—namesake of the cocktail you do not request from a flight attendant. Kudos also goes to Simon Russell Beale, the great British stage actor. Beal somehow manages to portray Stalin henchman Lavrenti Beria in all his depravity without throwing the films tragicomic balance out of whack.
Showing at Salem Cinema, Death Of Stalin will be extended at least through May 3.
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Photo at top of story—from left: Steve Buscemi as Krushchev, Adrian McLoughlin as Stalin (on floor), Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Dermot Crowley as Kaganovich, & Simon Russell Beale as Beria. Photo by Nicola Dove, courtesy/IFC Films.