Undoubtedly The Death of Stalin is the best film I’ve watched this year.
It’s also the only film I’ve watched this year.
These two positions are compatible because I know how to pick ’em, having grown to hate wasting time on waves of comic book crap when I could be reading instead.
It’s a satire overload, and I’m reminded just a bit of the original cinematic version of M*A*S*H, insofar as the viewer can be gut-laughing amid scenes depicting death and deathly seriousness, with humor and revulsion occurring all at once.
Dargis’ review (linked below) aptly summarizes the experience. As a longtime student of Russian and Soviet history, I’ll add only that the characterizations are surprisingly accurate, if exaggerated for comic effect.
Khrushchev really did perform the part of the buffoon to mask his own ambitions, and Molotov really was willing to sacrifice his own family for the greater good of the party. Beria was an epochal, world-class sociopath whose messy end may actually have paralleled the film’s jarring conclusion.
The Soviet leadership struggle following Stalin’s death was the last one to feature murderous mayhem as default strategy. When Khrushchev was overthrown by Brezhnev in 1964, he was retired, not killed. Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko died of illness and old age. The plotters against Gorbachev in 1991 placed the last Soviet leader under flabby house arrest, and folded like a house of cards when Yeltsin rallied support against the coup.
Then there’s Molotov, played superbly by Michael Palin in the film. He survived all the preceding luminaries save only Gorbachev, and died peacefully in hospital in 1986 at the age of 96.
I cannot recommend this film highly enough. In the context of my admittedly narrow tastes, it’s a masterpiece.
Review: The Slapstick Horror of ‘The Death of Stalin’, by Manohla Dargis (New York Times)
The comedy of cruelty is rarely funnier or more brutal than when it comes from Armando Iannucci, a virtuoso of political evisceration. A comic talent who should be household famous, he is best known for “Veep,” the HBO series about Washington politics that was a satire when it first hit in 2012 but now seems like a reality show. He also directed the movie “In the Loop,” an aptly obscene burlesque about the run-up to the Iraq War. He only seems to have abandoned contemporary politics in his latest, “The Death of Stalin,” an eccentric comic shocker about a strong man and his world of ashes and blood.
The laughs come in jolts and waves in “The Death of Stalin,” delivered in a brilliantly arranged mix of savage one-liners, lacerating dialogue and perfectly timed slapstick that wouldn’t be out of place in a Three Stooges bit. Turning horror into comedy is nothing new, but Mr. Iannucci’s unwavering embrace of these seemingly discordant genres as twin principles is bracing. In “The Death of Stalin,” fear is so overwhelming, so deeply embedded in everyday life that it distorts ordinary expression, utterances, gestures and bodies. It has turned faces into masks (alternately tragic and comic), people into caricatures, death into a punch line.
The movie opens in early March 1953. The iron-fisted Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), 74, has ruled the Soviet Union for decades and racked up countless crimes against humanity and millions of victims. A near-monosyllabic thug with a helmet of steel-gray hair and a retinue of flatterers — Khrushchev and Molotov are among the names crowding this familiar roll call — Stalin likes classical music and old westerns, a casual reminder that barbarism and civilization are often partners in crime. Squirreled away in a dacha, a relatively modest woodland retreat at a remove from the Kremlin, Stalin kicks back with his toadies only to fall grievously ill later that same evening.
He briefly hangs on, gasping but mute, throwing his nominal comrades in arms into a fast-spiraling panic. The most appealing, or rather the least obviously terrible, of these is Khrushchev (a superb Steve Buscemi), the minister of agriculture and a cunning, outwardly drab schemer. Like a seasoned standup, Khrushchev tells his wife which of his jokes made Stalin laugh, an accounting that she dutifully preserves for future reference. When he learns that Stalin has taken ill, Khrushchev hastily pulls a jacket and pants over his pajamas and rushes to his side, where Beria (Simon Russell Beale, brilliant), the head of the secret police, the N.K.V.D., has already taken up position and begun plotting …