Unless you’re Peter Hitchens, you’ve long since internalised the idea that rhetorical strategies for dealing with tyrants, terrorists and tragedy are one thing but the true character of the people and events that characterise them is another. So whereas we’re conditioned to think twice before being glib when discussing Pol Pot, because it may suggest a certain indifference to the genocidal atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge, the reality is the Cambodian dictator was just a ridiculant; albeit one who used unchecked power to pursue aims built on boilerplate character flaws. Or to put it another way, he was ordinary – stupid, silly, self-important, fragile, maybe even good humoured, but freed of moral and political constraints, indulged every imbecilic, half-baked impulse he ever had with catastrophic consequences.
This is worth mulling over, else Armando Iannucci’s satirical look at the farcical aftermath of Joseph Stalin’s fatal stroke amongst his wretched and perfidious retinue, might appear rather flippant. Isn’t Stalin a monster, responsible for tens of millions of deaths and untold suffering and repression amongst the living? And shouldn’t the regime of such a man be subject to the most sombre and interrogative treatment, pausing only to reflect on the inhumanity inherent in his psychotic contempt for human life? Isn’t it necessary to flag how serious it is using storytelling devices designed to symbolise said attitude?
Well, no. Because Stalin, imagined here as a cockney gangster whose mood could turn on a kopek, was fundamentally just a thug, and acknowledging as much, using this neat comic conceit, crystallises that truth, robbing the man of his unearned mystique and divesting the seriousness of his crimes from the failed human who ordered them. Iannucci applies the same strategy to Beria, head of the NKVD (played by Simon Russell Beale as a psychotic Weinstein), Khrushchev (a neurotic Steve Buscemi), Malenkov (a clueless and posturing Jeffrey Tambor, out of his depth) and the rest of Stalin’s yes men, letting each actor match their character to their comic persona, using their own accent. Not a serious attempt an impersonation then, but comic appropriation, and it works wonderfully well. The Death of Stalin takes true incompetents, corrupted by the trappings of power, run through with fear and paranoia, and finds the black humour both in their predicament and inhuman, technocratic ideology.
The timeline of events may be compressed, Iannucci’s barbed dialogue and bleak witticisms, comic invention, but the intellectual dishonesty, hypocrisy and self-interest they invoke feel authentic enough.
There’s indignity in death and horror in the mundane when applied to a totalitarian machine, and both are vividly realised here in a film that rides the line between irreverence and farce without trivialising the plight of the victims. By way of example, there’s implied rape and execution (Iannucci’s camera declines to be gratuitous, giving the unfortunates more dignity than their tormentors ever did), and an extended kangaroo court scene for Beria that lingers long in the mind. Only the monstrous are humiliated and subject to a deadpan indifference to their suffering; a fate brought on themselves. That, surely, isn’t just a fair historical reimagining but a just one.