The literature on his blood-soaked rule has reached Babel Tower proportions. Joseph Stalin, who presided over a state transformed and tormented, has been a difficult subject to portray. His period of rule, its cruelty stupendous and murderous, has turned on the creative juices of writers, graphic novelists, and screen writers over the years. The degrees of success have varied.
One particularly troubling subject is that of laughter in a totalitarian state. How might it figure in the context of a regime so remorseless in its elimination of enemies actual and perceived? Despots and tyrants, after all, tend to find the subject troubling, humour being the classic weapon of the oppressed.
For novelist Martin Amis, one had to see Stalin’s period and its terror as something tantamount to black farce. The Bolshevik revolution, unlike the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, was premised on radical experimentation, ostensibly to improve. Hitler’s band of fanatics, by way of contrast, “spat in the face of the Enlightenment”, to quote the words of Orlando Figes.
The basis for Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is itself comically absurd, and, in turn, based on the graphic novel La Mort de Staline by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. The focus here is on the circumstances surrounding the generalissimo’s death and the struggle over a suitable successor. In a collective of jackals, a good degree of plotting and jostling is bound to take place.
The very issue of how Stalin died has produced an avalanche of speculation and opinion. The poisoning thesis, for one, finds expression in such works as Stalin’s Last Crime – The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors (2003).
Iannucci, in that regard, puts his finger on a moment of divine absurdity. Few doctors would have wished to treat such a man, given the good chance that bungling or misdiagnosis would end in death. Stalin’s own campaign against the medical profession, those “assassins in white coats”, to use the lines from Pravda, left Moscow empty of supposedly competent staff, a tricky situation given the leader’s imperilled state.
Having suffered a stroke, the henchmen from the Central Committee busy themselves with the next move. For one thing, Stalin is not dead at that point, albeit undignified having lost control of his bodily functions.
First on the scene is the NKVD’s wily chief and notorious sadist, Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), followed by the terrified Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) who is slated to succeed him. Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) then appears, having hastily put on a suit over his pyjamas, followed by Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley), Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse) and Bulganin (Paul Chahidi).
Plots and sub-plots are hatched, initially triggered by peripatetic sessions in the woods of the dictator’s dacha. Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) is approached, her favours courted. Bishops, the great antithetical force of communism, are invited by Beria to preside at the funeral – an act of conciliation. A mild ease up on some executions are ordered, and even the release of some political prisoners.
All of this takes place as the power play encrusts the film. Eventually, Beria loses ground and is outmanoeuvred by the scheming Khrushchev, ably assisted by General Zhukov (Jeremy Isaacs). “I fooked Germany,” spurts the embodiment of the Red Army. “I think I can take a flesh lump in a fookin’ waistcoat.” It’s a close thing: the lump, after all, was supremely malicious and canny, and Beale is disconcertingly good in conveying that dark eminence.
Stalin’s rule, according to that long standing student of Soviet history Sheila Fitzpatrick, was incremental, tinged by “sadism: the defeated hung twisting the wind for a long time, begging for clemency and reinstatement … until they ended up as total outcasts if not gibbering wrecks.”
The gibbering is certainly captured with tart sharpness (Malenkov concedes to not remembering “who’s alive and who isn’t”), and it persists within a system that is corrupted by its own paranoid musings. Treason must be defined by more treason, by more fictional evidence, by an absence of proof that is built up as unimpeachable truth. Behind Iannucci’s work is the sense that the joke just might kill you.
The sense of the faux pas and the misstep is omnipresent. Molotov (Michael Palin) finds himself constantly having to justify the punishment afforded his wife, who becomes a pawn of Beria’s plotting (behold, your wife is alive, and she has returned). But the regime’s hemlock is hard to avoid, the sort of conspiracy potion that means that each revelation must be cautioned against, prepared for.
Throughout, murder is routine, executions standard. People are summoned from their beds in their pyjamas and here, the absurdist element reaches suitable heights when a conductor is urgently called to re-do a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, originally unrecorded. As he is sped off, a flurry of activity shows men and women being taken away to their demise by the NKVD, who relish their work.
What is so refreshing about Iannucci’s take here is his abandonment of that cringe worthy convention: making Russians, Georgians, Ukrainians and their whole miscellany of Slavic cognates speak English in tormented accents. Keep it in the tongue of its representative actors – The Death of Stalin might just as well be transferrable to other languages in their tongue, absent any idiotic affectation. The vulgar tongue is universal.
That it has been refused screenings in Russia on pain of fines is hardly surprising. If it is deemed an obscenity, The Death of Stalin has achieved its purpose, a suitably obscene riposte to the terror of a mammoth, murderous state.