How should one approach the study of history? Must we be totally serious when examining it, or can we find the space to insert humor and everyday absurdity into it? For director Armando Iannucci the answer comes with the latter in his latest satirical film The Death of Stalin. But while the film is satirical its humor isn’t unnaturally inserted into a serious historical drama, rather it appears merely as factual. It seems clear that Iannucci is telling us that this particular chapter of history was naturally absurdist and ridiculous. With this idea in mind, watching The Death of Stalin actually becomes tragic; if all that is presented was truly this ridiculous it’s definitely an amusing movie, but then consider that because of all this “absurdity” millions were tortured and killed. This story of the Soviet politburo may have indeed been this surreal, but that didn’t stop it from being as equally repressive.
As the title suggests, the movie recounts the events surrounding the death of Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) and the immediate power vacuum his demise creates. High ranking officials in the Communist Party find themselves scrambling to maintain order, all while each try their hand at assuming total control of the massive Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
It’s in this narrative that the satire and comedy really shine. Whether it’s bickering over what to do with Stalin’s body, squabbling over funeral plans and the direction of domestic policy, or staging a ‘faux’ piano concert, the humor in The Death of Stalin doesn’t come from jokes or one-liners but simply from its depiction of these absurd everyday events. In ways Iannucci seems to be going for a Seinfeld like approach in his comedy; the banal and small minutiae that Stalin’s death triggered become as comical as the grand exhibition that is his funeral. Who knew that a scene of Stalin’s unconscious body being transferred to his bed could be so amusing?
Of course, while these everyday bits of comedy are presented naturally, the colorful cast of characters are certainly exaggerated for comedic effect. From Nikita Khrushchev to Vyacheslav Molotov, and even Stalin himself, the portrayals of this rogues gallery is filled with parody. Though the events are presented with a certain amount of historical accuracy, the characterization of these men is obviously over the top.
Khrushchev for instance (played by the Brooklyn native Steve Buscemi) speaks with a New York accent all while being paranoid and with a fondness for expletives; Buscemi isn’t playing Nikita Khrushchev but a total caricature of a man. Similarly, Michael Palin’s Vyacheslav Molotov (namesake of the Molotov Cocktail), Jeffrey Tambor’s Georgy Malenkov, and Jason Isaacs’ Georgy Zhukov are all absurdist in their own unique ways. Historical accuracy in these men’s characters is not Iannucci’s goal, rather its to highlight the utter ridiculousness of dictatorships, the cult of personalities, and backroom politics.
For Armando Iannucci (creator of HBO’s hit series Veep) looking at this crucial time in the history of the Soviet Union presented an opportunity for a unique storytelling perspective. Either tell the story straight or exploit its inherent ridiculousness. As Quentin Tarantino did with films like Inglourious Basterds, Iannucci has proclaimed that these infamous tyrants and their followers were nothing more than clowns. Unfortunately, these clowns slaughtered millions and left behind an unimaginable trail of horror. Hence while we may laugh at the satirical nature of certain historical episodes, we cannot forget that the humor is solely for those privileged to have not lived through it.
"The Death of Stalin is a comical yet subtly scathing look at totalitarianism and the few people whose decisions affected millions."
Unlike recent historical movies like Darkest Hour, which uses history as a tool for inspiration, The Death of Stalin is a comical yet subtly scathing look at totalitarianism and the few people whose decisions affected millions. If there is one major flaw in this film it’s that every day and suffering Soviet citizens don’t have their stories told; rather the focus remains on this inner circle of sycophants and their escapades.
Yes, this film is funny, with its comedy largely derived from the type of humor we can find in everyday life. And while characters and situations have been exaggerated, the funniness of this movie serves to remind us of just how tragic this whole tale is.
That’s what makes The Death of Stalin an ultimately sad film as well; if these events weren’t so tragic and evil, then they are absolutely hysterical. But they are and any humor we have for a momentary time in the theatre can’t make up for a lifetime of suffering by these ‘comical characters’.