THE DEATH OF STALIN (2017)

  • Release Date: 20/10/2017
  • Cast: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Dermot Crowley, Paul Whitehouse, Jason Issacs
  • Director: Armando Iannucci

A rip-roaring social commentary about the Russian tyrant and the men who would succeed him

On 1st March 1953, Joseph Stalin suffered a heart attack and dropped on the floor of his office. For the next 5 days, he suffered and eventually died on 5th March 1953. This sudden incident set into motion a series of events that would not only determine the next leader of the Soviet Union but would also put an end to one of history’s bloodiest reins. Ironically it would also bring down the man who was instrumental in helping Stalin orchestrate his nefarious plans, Lavrentiy Beria. The Death of Stalin is a comedy of errors chronicling the aforementioned events of which some are so outrageous that you will not even believe that they were true.

I cannot review this film without discussing the events that it documents as they are at the heart of all that is best about the film. Stalin had a heart attack and he fell on the floor with a thud. The two guards posted outside his office didn’t dare to go in and check as they were afraid of inviting his wrath and losing their lives. Before the attack we see Stalin call up a radio station and ask for a recording of a concerto that was playing at that hour as he enjoyed it immensely. The problem was, the concerto was playing live and was not recorded. The director of the radio station forces the band to re-perform the concerto and even pulls in crowds from the roads to make the ambiance similar to what it might have sounded like to Stalin when he heard it on the radio. We see the director lose his mind over seconds as he waits to call back the dictator after exactly 17 minutes as he was ordered to.

After Stalin is discovered lying in a puddle of his own urine, the staff doesn’t call a doctor but instead call the politburo. The first person to reach the spot is Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) a weasel-like figure who resembles “The Penguin” from the Bat-Man comics. He was Stalin’s spymaster and did all of his dirty work. He took pleasure in tormenting the masses and was later tried for raping 347 women including a girl as young as 7 years. He was responsible for the death of millions and yet was quickly falling off Stalin’s grace before his death. Upon his arrival, he first looks to clear out the documents that were not favorable to him and not call a doctor.

The next to arrive is Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). While Georgy was the next in line to be the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita found himself in the elite company just because he could crack up Stalin with his jokes. He was always considered to be a nobody. Georgy cries for a second calling Stalin irreplaceable and then in the very next moment presses his authority over the Union. Nikita meanwhile has arrived in his pajamas out of sheer instinct and to be there ahead of the others. The next three to arrive are Lazar Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley), Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse), and Nicolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi). These five make up the committee that is to then decide if they should call a doctor or not? They could now but the problem was that they had either killed or put every competent doctor in Moscow in prison as Stalin believed that they were plotting to assassinate him.

The scene is then populated by Stalin’s children and a few more key players who would then plot, scheme and connive with each other on who to replace and how best to take advantage of the death of the man. Nikita, who for so long had been ignored, suddenly finds his voice and makes his presence felt. Beria who already knew the pieces and his way around them and shared a good rapport with Georgy quickly starts seizing power. Nikita finds himself pushed to the wall and realizes that he might soon be killed. Desperate, he hatches a plot to silence Beria once and for all and starts recruiting the other members of the committee to support his bidding. His efforts get a shot in the arm when Beria’s men kill 1500 people who arrived in Moscow to attend Stalin’s funeral. Beria himself aides Nikita buy losing his head on the party members and threatening to expose them with the documents that he has on them. What happens next is so unbelievable that it left me perplexed.

If one looks at this film, it is basically a few men talking and some shocking sequences of violence that unfolds from time to time. It is a film that is completely driven by the performances and every actor in the film does such a commendable job that you can’t help but be in their awe. Even minor characters take their role so seriously as if their lives depended on it. My favorite of the lot was Simon Russell Beale as Beria. He is not only the impersonation of evil but is also the funniest character in the film. He is someone who you cannot trust and he tries to have sex with every woman or girl that he can lay his eyes on. Age is just a number in this regard for him. He is also extremely shifty and his sudden changing of sides and the expression that Simon Russell Beale brings to the character will stay with me for a very long time. The way the character has been approached by Beale was remarkable and effective.

Steve Buscemi as Nikita is my next favorite. He spends most of the film being dwarfed by Beria and being flustered about it. After Stalin’s death, Beria ensures that Nikita is kept out of any important position and forces him to be the funeral director. He even rubs salt on his wounds by mocking him about it. Beria hijacks Nikita’s plans of releasing prisoners and inviting the Bishops to the funeral calling it his own reforms. This outrages Nikita and one can see that on Buscemi’s face. His frustration is a major source of comedy in the film. There comes a time when he forgets even the etiquettes of the funeral and tries to talk party members to support his agenda against Beria during the funeral rituals.

Jeffrey Tambor as the confused and meek Georgy is hilarious. He practically has no say in any important matter and when he does get a chance, he invariably messes it up because of his confused state of mind. Jeffrey Tambor is one of those people who can make you laugh with just the way he looks at someone and can act without uttering a single word. He brings that quality of his repertoire to the fore here. Paddy Considine has a small role as the radio station manager but he literally made me roll on the floor laughing with his act. The man is scared for his life and you could see what a man is capable of doing when he is scared for his life. It was heartbreaking and comic at the same time.

Apart from the performances, the biggest plus for the film was its quirky writing and rip-roaring dialogue. Just picture this. One of the committee members asks Nikita if he invited the Bishops to the funeral to which he replies with… “I didn’t invite those boyfriends of Christ”. Beria is about to release A woman who has been wrongly held for years. He informs her — “Polina, Stalin is dead”. “Stalin? Our Stalin? Asks the teary-eyed woman. “Yes! Your Stalin, the man who put you here”, replies Beria with a wicked smile. Almost every line in the film is dripping with quality sarcasm and rip-roaring caricature-ish overtones. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that if the dialogues hadn’t been so good, this might have been a lesser film than what it ends up being.

The Death of Stalin is one of those rare comedies that one can watch repeatedly and still not have enough of. The fact that it is historically so correct also makes it one of the films that we should watch just to get an idea of how horrible lives can get if a man becomes larger than a nation. Laced with terrific performances, simmering drama, laugh-out-loud comedy, and an immersive plot, this is a film that must be experienced. It is available on Prime Videos which makes it possible for the viewers to watch it again and again at a time like this.

Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)

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