Friday, 1 December 2017

The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci
2017, France-UK

Armand Iannucci has long been a reliable source of satire and ‘The Death of Stalin’, his adaptation of Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel, showcases his potent skills as a political humorist. The set-up is in the title and then all hell breaks loose as the main players in Soviet government, 1953, try to work out what to do next and how to extricate themselves from previous adminstration. Understanding that it’s working on multiple levels, a top tier cast play relatively straight without becoming cartoonish, relying on the natural absurdity that comes from the circumstance of a bunch of conniving but dangerous people trying to break off the shackles of The Great Terror whilst trying to figure out what exactly they should do next. What helps greatly is that the cast keeps their own accents, allowing Adrian McLoughlin’s Stalin to sound like an East End gangster, Steve Buscemi’s Krushchev to sound like a weary plotter (like Steve Buscemei, then) and Jason Isaacs’ to let loose with a showstealing Yorkshire bolshiness for his Georgy Zhokov.

And then there’s Simon Russel Beale whose turn as Lavrentiy Beria is truly chilling in his casual psychopathy, reminding everyone just how high the stakes are. As a thoroughly cold-blooded executioner by whim, it is Beria’s side of things that perhaps may have caused some to find this too chilling for a comedy, even despite the slapstick and humour of the corpse-carrying and lying in state set-pieces. But this balance of funny-horror is correct and deftly played, showing how the ridiculous pantomimes these officials go through to keep authority and, indeed, stay alive have terrible effects across the country that they barely seem aware of, so caught up as they are in their power plays. Iannucci has been very vocal about his intention in keeping that balance and has made it clear that muting the horror for the comedy would have been to belittle how truly terrible the truth of it was. 

Unlike, say, Sokurov’s ‘Moloch’ or Schlöndorff’s ‘The Tin Drum’, this does not use abstraction or magic realism to realise its absurdism: rather the absurdism comes from the buffoonery of Georgy Malenkov’s (Jeffrey Tambor) blundering vanity; or Comrade Andryev (Paddy Considine), panic-stricken, having to hastily recreate an orchestral performance for Stalin that wasn’t recorded originally; from Krushchev writing a list of notes of things that he did or said that pleased Stalin; or Zhukov’s confident crassness, etc. It’s like Monty Python meeting the seriousness of, for example, Andrzej Wadja. 

Some may find it’s framework of seriousness too much, even despite the set pieces, the funny-horrible black humour and slapstick, the droll script and performances, but it makes ‘The Death of Stalin’ more textured and more essential as a satire showing the terrifying effects of farcical politics. And of course, such satire is almost inherently subversive because fascism kills humour and loathes mockery. This is surely why it is also likely to only grow in stature over time. 


J McEvoy said...

Haven't seen this one yet; but you might be interested in Jack Gold's "Red Monarch" from 1983, which I found a very effective piece.

Buck Theorem said...

Thank you very much for the recommedation, J - much appreciated.