The Death of Stalin review: The politics of paranoia explained in a comedy of errors

  • The Death of Stalin

In the post-war Soviet Russia, nothing can keep you safe except the wholehearted dedication to the Communist Party. Sons inform on their fathers, one unfortunate joke can get you killed or sent to Siberia, and the total compliance to the government is the only thing that can keep you safe (but what does that even mean when the laws change in a matter of days?).

the death of stalin review

Before the Khrushchev Thaw that relaxed the laws across the USSR and in the satellite communist countries, the terror of Stalinist government sent millions to gulags, killed thousands in secret police investigations and allowed careerism if you knew how to navigate this landscape skilfully. It might be difficult to laugh at the period of time that destroyed so many lives across Eastern Europe – but if you know how to pick up the juicy bits of absurd without diminishing the impact of terror, satire is the best way to explain its outcomes to more people.

Armando Iannucci brings us a political satire that finds the fine balance between the two of those categories. And it’s important that he doesn’t try imitating anything: the take on it is as British as the Monty Python, there’s nobody faking Russian accents in sight, and the story draws from the real events to find its own beat and make the humour relatable to many political games we see today.

The relationships in the cabinet that are laid out bare from the beginning: the festive dinner, where Stalin and his cabinet rest, gets one of the politicians on the unstable territory when he asks about one of the executed political prisoners he had no idea about. To advance in this environment, or to simply make out of it alive, you need to keep tabs on the death toll – even if you do it by drunkenly dictating the overheard conversations to your wife. That gives the tremendous cast of Steve Buscemi (Khrushchev), Jeffrey Tambor (Malenkov), Simon Russell Beale (Beria) and Michael Palin (Molotov) highlight the farce in the complicated situation.

Everyone wants the change to happen, nobody has any idea how to untangle themselves from the politics of terror they’ve been accustomed to parroting. The politicians are desperate to cultivate the communist ideas, but understand that in the battle for power that’s about to unfold, cruelty and eliminating their enemies are as important as gaining public approval. That creates a lot of finger-pointing, blame-shifting, and terrific puns put into the mouths of the actors.

This becomes even more prominent when it comes to organising the funeral: Beria invites the bishops despite a well-known anti-religious status of the party, Khrushchev teams up with the Red Army’s Chief Officer who also doesn’t miss a beat to terrify him for laughs, and image-conscious Malenkov struggles to transition into a leader, paralysed by the fear of saying the wrong thing. The spirit of Stalin hovers in the air and gets stronger when everyone tries to defy it, and his children, who are as deeply impacted by the paranoia as their father, complicate the situation even more. Here, Andrea Riseborough gets a chance to shine as Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter who can turn her suspicions into an interrogation technique.

However, there’s at least a couple of moments where we see through the comedy and freeze for a moment for the sensitive depiction of terror. “Kill her, but make sure he sees it,” Beria commands one of the officers, saying it lightly and simply strutting away. Similarly impactful is the look that father gives his son when the secret police walk him out of their house, knowing that his offspring has denounced him. And particularly revealing when it comes to the power of indoctrination is the moment where Molotov agrees that killing his “degenerate” wife, “a danger to the Soviet Union”, was the only way, only for Beria to bring her home, making the politician face his estranged partner.

As a Very Polish Person (born after 1989, though), it brings me to Tango, a play by Stanisław Mrożek, an absurd take on compliance to dictatorship. And it’s tough not to think of his namesake Bareja, whose take on communist reality gained a cult status in Polish comedy (Teddy Bear, Calls Controlled). It makes me think of the stand-up work done by great comedians that kept people laughing over the tough times, too – we’re accustomed to political satire and cherish it, so it’s interesting to see British take on it.

Besides being an impressively observed mockery of the past days, which is interesting to see from the British perspective, The Death of Stalin becomes more and more relevant to the present. When a massive part of the world gives into the worship of the leaders who often are as flippant as the wind direction, it’s worth it to remind ourselves how the politics of dictatorship really work. And we need to keep in mind how Khrushchev, Malenkov, and the rest of the party ultimately finished their careers, too, to make it fully resonate.

The Death of Stalin opens on the 20th of October 2017.

Kasia Kwasniewska

Editor in Chief

Passionate about far too many things. Loves reading, watching films, eyeing (and producing) good design, listening to music and stuffing her face with chocolate on a daily basis. Cooks from time to time, and drinks far too much coffee to be a normal human being .