Some black comedies dare to generate laughs from dark, ghastly subjects, and “The Death of Stalin” is one of such interesting cases. Focusing on the human absurdities and inhuman horrors inside one of the most infamous totalitarian regimes in the 20th century history, the movie alternatively chills and tickles us through its ruthless black humor rivaling “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964), and the result is one of the funniest films of this year.
Mainly set in Moscow, the Soviet Union around early 1953, the movie opens with the live radio broadcast of a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 in A Major (K. 488). Everything seems to be going well, but then a guy supervising the radio broadcast receives a phone call during the middle of the performance, and he is soon thrown into panic as the performance is about to be finished. The call comes from none other than Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), and he demands a recording of the performance, which, unfortunately, is not being recorded.
What follows after that is pretty absurd to say the least. For recreating the exact same performance, audiences are hurriedly brought back to the studio while orchestra members are ready for their second performance, but there come two big problems. While so nervous about what may happen if he does not pull it off well, the conductor gets himself knocked out by accident, and the pianist, who does not like Stalin much for a personal reason, is not so eager to play for him.
This farcical moment is juxtaposed with a chilling sequence depicting the daily horror under Stalin’s dictatorship. As soon as Stalin approves of another list of people to be incarcerated or executed, the secret police headed by his righthand guy Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) instantly goes outside for arresting them all. Knowing that they can be arrested at any moment, everyone in the country is constantly watchful of their words and behaviors, and that is particularly true in case of the members of Stalin’s inner circle. When they have a drinking time with Stalin at his dacha outside Moscow, they look jolly and drunken on the surface, but they are also nervous about their powerful and ruthless leader, and they are all relieved when their another evening with Stalin is over without any serious trouble to get any of them eliminated.
However, something quite unexpected happens not long after that. When he finally receives the recording of that concerto performance in question and then reads a note sent along with it, Stalin is collapsed on the floor of his office due to sudden cerebral haemorrhage, and this serious health state of his is belatedly discovered only after a maid comes into the office in the next morning. Once he is notified of this serious situation, Beria immediately goes to Stalin’s dacha, so do Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buschemi) and the other members of the Central Committee.
The movie, which is adapted from graphic novel “La mort de Staline” by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robindeal by director Armando Iannucci and his co-writers David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows, gives us numerous acerbic moments of ironies and absurdities as its apparatchik characters clumsily try to deal with this urgent circumstance they have probably never imagined. At one point, they try to get doctors to examine Stalin, but then they are reminded that they executed most of good doctors in Moscow, and a bunch of doctors they later manage to gather are understandably reluctant to examine Stalin.
Once Stalin eventually passes away, the situation becomes more complicated due to the following conflict between Beria and Khrushchev. Although Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) fills Stalin’s empty position for now, he is utterly ineffectual and spineless without much presence or leadership to hold the Central Committee under his control, and both Beria and Khrushchev try to manipulate him as well as other several key figures for their ultimate political goal. Besides Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and other Central Committee members, they also have to deal with Stalin’s two children Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), and there is also Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), a volatile World War II hero who forcefully struts into the ongoing circumstance as quite determined to do something about it.
Wryly depicting the silliness of this absurd power struggle, the movie never overlooks the atrocities casually committed by its main characters’ monstrous political system, and Iannucci deftly balances his story and characters between humor and horror. While we get lots of laughs from how silly and petty its main characters are, what is being at stake in their inner world remains quite serious nonetheless, and we are often chilled by how their political chaos mercilessly affects the world outside.
Rather than using fake Russian accent, the performers in the movie speak with each own natural English accent, and this wise acting choice makes them more fluent and effortless in their line delivery and timing. While Steve Buscemi, who is the last performer you can imagine playing Khrushchev, is superlative in his role, Simon Russell Beale is effectively despicable, and the other main cast members including Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Rupert Friend, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine, and Jason Isaacs have each own moment to shine.
Like Iannucci’s previous work “In the Loop” (2009), “The Death of Stalin” is a smart, intelligent political satire which distinguishes itself with its sharp, uninhibited sense of black humor, and you will be simultaneously amused and chilled by its barbed insights on dictatorship and accompanying sycophancy. They say anything can be a subject for comedy, and this bitingly funny movie surely proves that with truly dark laughs to be savored and appreciated.