A Grimly Effective Death of Stalin

That Armando Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin is terrific as a film is perhaps a little surprising, as the story came from a graphic novel—a genre not known for highlighting the importance of words. Zac Nicholson’s cinematography, which is superb, does not submerge the dialogue, which keeps the viewer intensely involved.

It did take me a while to figure out what I thought about the casting. No one in this historical drama looked quite right. Adrian McLoughlin plays Josef Stalin, who was short, but he isn’t  really wide enough. Georgy Malenkov, flabby and round-faced in real life, is played by Jeffrey Tambor, who is not so. Simon Russell Beale is excellent as Lavrenti Beria, but is nothing in appearance like I remembered the head of the NKVD (the 1930s acronym for the Soviet secret police). Michael Palin makes a pretty good Vyacheslav Molotov though he’s too short.

Initially most strange to me was that Steve Buscemi (Fargo, The Big Lebowski) should be cast as Nikita Khrushchev. Perhaps Nikita Sergeiyevich was thinner in 1953, but he could have hardly been Buscemi-thin. Nonetheless he, and Ianucci and his co-scriptwriters, do well in bringing Khrushchev to life. He never shut up, and his assiduousness at talking and scheming was no doubt one of the keys to the Central Committee cabal’s success in stopping Beria from taking the dead dictator’s place. Once upon a time, Richard Nixon (I kid you not) told me that Khrushchev was the fastest on his feet of any head of state he’d ever met. Ianucci got that right, I think.

Jason Isaacs as Field Marshal Zhukov is stellar. The Red Army leader’s role in the defeat of Beria was probably crucial. Now whether the film correctly portrays Zhukov in the presence of Beria during the apprehension, shooting, and public cremation (gas cans in a courtyard) of Beria, I don’t know. But surely his support for Khrushchev and the enemies of Beria was stout. In 1953-1954, the Red Army versus Beria’s NKVD was still in the former’s favor thanks to Zhukov’s role in defeating Germany in the Second World War. FYI, the trial of Beria was not shown in the film. Nor can it really be said there was one in real life. Iannucci has Malenkov signing what appears to be a execution order supported by a verdict by a court whom the audience never sees.

Now, for how one should allow himself to be affected by The Death of Stalin.

What I expected beforehand was something like a full-blown comedy or at least a less-than-subtle farce. The New Yorker’s reviewer, Anthony Lane, made the disturbing suggestion that there was daring and genius in making evil funny. Yes, there is humor, but all of it is humor of a moment. Like much of the humor in movies and television, it’s easy, not daring: Just present a collection of evil men and women in power or hungry for it (or hungry to survive in life-threatening circumstances) as rubes and boobs like the rest of us. This, director Iannucci indeed does—particularly with Malenkov and Molotov, and also with lesser principals of the Communist Party’s Central Committee of March 1953. But that scarcely makes for a comedy or takes the edge off the horror of the film.

What I found compelling was the climate of fear it evoked and carried forward. We are let in on Stalin’s lists (followed by depictions) of condemned men and women being rounded up and executed. We see the anxiety of these people, who know that inattention in almost any circumstance could spell their doom. We see their dread of any word of theirs, spoken in even the most banal of circumstances, leading to their condemnation for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. While The Death of Stalin portrays Lavrenti Beria as the most evil of all (which certainly he was, besides Stalin himself), it does not omit the murderousness of the whole of the Party elite.

There’s a lesson here for those who imagine that one-party states, ideologues, and power-hungry, would-be tyrants by disposition are not really so different from ordinary politicians or even you and me. Struggles for power in such circumstances are all the same, irrespective of time and place. And they are both terrifying and disgusting. It’s matter of kill or be killed.

The film’s main point is that the death of Stalin brought on the ruin of his principal henchman, Beria—who perhaps in fact was even more evil than The Boss. Strange as it may seem, one can find present-day articles not only regarding Beria as Stalin’s most appropriate successor, but as the real “liberal” on the Central Committee, not Khrushchev. Of course, it’s a faulty comparison for Nikita was really no liberal. He simply played the same appearance-of-reform card that Beria would likely have played if he’d had the chance.

The Death of Stalin conveys the incredible vileness of the totalitarian regimes we fought against in the 20th century. Evil could be made universal indeed, as it trickled down from the top even unto sons or daughters of the condemned who felt compelled to turn in their parents to survive themselves. Men of any sort can evince the potential for evil implied in the notion of original sin. However, not all evildoers are equal. Some, like Adolf Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong, were monsters beyond the imagination. Thus, the film shows, and begs us to countenance, the probable reappearance of more of them.

Accordingly, the virtue of The Death of Stalin is what it tells us about the greater evil of the individuals I just named, not simply the evil that resides in the heart of every man. These men, who largely ruled the people by giving them the choice of death or complicity in monstrous crimes in order to survive, are not, unfortunately, a dying breed. If I could, I’d compel younger folk inclined toward politics to go see it.