Probably one of the blackest comedies I have ever seen, The Death of Stalin managed to make a film about one of the ruthless men of the 20th century the funniest film I have seen in theaters in a long time. The balance between the comedy the film brings and the brutality that was reality is sharp and striking. You aren’t expected to laugh at the atrocities committed by Stalin and other members of the committee, but you will laugh at the characters themselves.
In this co-production film, the actors are allowed to keep their native accents, whether they’re from Brooklyn or Yorkshire. Rather than having some attempted Russian accents that may or may not be convincing, the actors become caricatures of the men they represent and deliver eviscerating dialogue back and forth as naturally as they need to for the humor to be executed properly. The one-liners are memorable, the fear is palpable, the wit is sharp, and the scheming is prolific.
The film begins with a radio orchestra in Moscow performing a Mozart concerto. Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) was so impressed with the performance that he requested a copy; of course, the radio station wasn’t recording, just broadcasting live. Fear and panic set in as the radio operator, Andreyev (Paddy Considine), tries to bring the audience back and recreate the performance before Stalin kills them for not having his recording. The pianist (Maria Veniaminovna Yudina, played by Olga Kurylenko), whose family and friends have been murdered by Stalin, has to be bribed to perform again – and later slips a note into the copy of the concerto to be delivered to Stalin.
Meanwhile, Stalin and some members from the Council of Ministers are having dinner together. Stalin sends out another one of his infamous lists of the Great Purge – everyone on it must be killed – and then they all kick back and watch a John Wayne western at Stalin’s insistence. The council members are clearly trying to suck up to Stalin the entire time, primarily trying to be the one to make him laugh the most and enjoy his evening. The night ends on a somber note; they all wave goodbye to Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) as his car pulls away, and they find out that he’s made the list to be killed next.
After the recording has been delivered, Stalin pulls out the record and begins to listen to the concerto. He finds the note hidden in the sleeve, and suddenly has a stroke as he’s reading it. He’s left lying on the floor until the morning, when he’s found by the woman who brings his breakfast. The Ministers are called, and it’s a race to see who can get there first. Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) arrives and quickly acts by swapping the most recent kill list with his own. Beria is the head of the NKVD, essentially the Soviet Union secret police, and has plans in place to seize power in the event of Stalin’s death. He’s also just an all-around bad guy; he employs ruthless torture methods, decides himself who to kill and who to spare for political bargaining chips, and is a serial rapist of young girls.
Next to arrive is Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), who is the automatic replacement in the event of Stalin’s death. And shortly behind him is Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), the jokester of the previous evening and one of the biggest don’t-make-waves suck-ups of the group. They all debate what to do and which doctor to call as the rest of the committee members show up. After comically trying to get Stalin into a more dignified position in a different room, they round up all of the doctors in Moscow who haven’t been killed or imprisoned at Stalin’s command. Beria makes his move when the doctors declare that Stalin will not recover, ordering the NKVD to use his Purge list instead and to close down transportation into Moscow.
When Stalin’s death is official, the Ministers immediately pair off into factions to attempt their own power grabs. Both Khrushchev and Beria visit Molotov, who unknowingly just barely survived, to try and win his support on the council. The same scramble for the most favorable position happens when Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), finally arrives. She insists that her drunk and disorderly brother Vasily (Rupert Friend) also be brought at once. Throughout the rest of the film, these two create a massive amount of comical melodrama, and become a continual headache for the Ministers to deal with.
As Khrushchev arranges the public display and funeral of Stalin, the plotting continues from each committee member, but Beria especially makes increasingly aggressive moves. Enter Field Marshal Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), the commander of the Red Army, who is furious that Beria has replaced his army men with NKVD as crowd control. Zhukov supports Khrushchev in his decision to restart the trains into Moscow, creating a massive influx of citizens traveling to see Stalin’s embalmed body, and eventually results in a massacre of the people when the overwhelmed NKVD members open fire on the crowds.
Khrushchev moves quickly to use the disaster as the catalyst for Beria’s demise. The other Ministers all have to be convinced to move against him, and after Stalin’s official funeral, Zhukov helps Khrushchev give Beria a swift and merciless trial. It’s a brutal ending to a brutal story, and although most of the dialogue retains the same wit and humor throughout the film, the events become increasingly darker all the way until the credits roll.
The film is actually a bit of a history lesson, albeit one with quite a lot of embellishment. It may seem far-fetched that a movie dealing with such awful subject matter and people could be so hilarious, but director Armando Iannucci manages to pull it off. Of course he had the help of some incredible co-writers, and he had an incredible score from Christopher Willis.
My top 3 musical impressions are:
- It’s a classically executed, all orchestral score. This isn’t groundbreaking as far as observations go, or even as scores go. But in a current cinematic climate where so many score include or are driven by synth elements, it’s refreshing and fun to hear a purely orchestral score that’s so well crafted. The cues are structured more like concert music than film music with how they develop and transition to different moments and moods. The themes are so catchy, memorable, and compelling; I haven’t been able to get them out of my head since we left the theater! Of course, my favorite classical composers are almost all French and Russian, so I will admit a predisposition to loving this style of music and this style of score.
- Willis clearly did his research on Russian composers. I mean honestly, I don’t know how the score could possibly sound more “Russian” than it already does. Obviously the Mozart concerto was a piece of source music, but I was shocked when the credits rolled and there were only two other pieces of source music. The score was so expertly pieced together that I was often conflicted on whether I was hearing part of an existing Soviet work from the likes of Shostakovich or Prokofiev, or whether I was hearing actual score composed by Willis. It was incredible and highly impressive.
- The orchestration was also top-notch. I would love to get my hands on a copy of each cue in this film so I could study the sheet music. Each musical idea is presently so clearly and plainly, the orchestra is really used to great effect. And, again, the style of orchestration is just as classical and just as Russian as the composition is. The themes are never hidden or obstructed, each instrument group is allowed to shine technically and lyrically, and each supporting element feels necessary to the moment instead of gratuitous. Because a lot of the cues are dramatic and exciting, the combination of orchestral groups is usually bombastic and strong; there are plenty of featured brass moments, insistent string underpinnings, woodwind runs and trills, and percussion staples like giant timpani/bass drum, cymbal crashes, and xylophone punctuation.
My top 3 film impressions are:
- Steve Buscemi is brilliant in this film. Besides bringing a comedic signature to the delivery of his lines and the presentation of his character, he unexpectedly and simultaneously shows his prowess as a dramatic actor. It wasn’t until we reached the end of the film that I realized – we’ve watched Khrushchev completely change his personality over the course of the movie. He starts off as practically spineless and doing whatever he can to please others, but he ends by ruthlessly executing the fall of Beria and taking power for himself. What really drives this home for me are his contrasting interactions with Svetlana. When she first arrives, he keeps trying to calm her and can’t seem to make his point while she’s hysterically talking over him. At the end of the film, Khrushchev instead tells her to shut up before she can even start her rambling and sends her away to Vienna without a second thought. It’s an incredible transformation, expertly delivered so you don’t even noticed it’s happened until after the fact.
- The introduction of each character infuses the film with even more comedy. Besides having witty dialogue and some entertaining physical situations, Iannucci manages to create humor even in dark moments with little touches like the character introductions. When someone new enters the film, they get a brief moment in slow motion where their name is displayed like a comic book character’s would be. It was this moment that made Zhukov my favorite person in the film; he entered in a whirlwind of no-nonsense badass-ery. And while I’m sure he was not a person you would root for in real life, it made for some pretty entertaining cinema, and perfectly set up what his contribution would be to the plot.
- The actors chosen for the Ministers worked well together on a comedic level. You won’t be under any illusions that you’re watching an impressive transformation like Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, but the film isn’t meant to be historically accurate. At least I hope that’s not the intent, because it certainly is not! It’s a comedy first and foremost, and I think the casting was pretty brilliant when you keep that in mind. The back and forth the characters had during all the moments of dialogue was so natural and effortless, the delivery of the lines was well executed by everyone. And because I absolutely saw the actor Steve Buscemi more than I invisioned Khrushchev and Jeffrey Tambor more than Malenkov, I feel like I need to give the credit for the seamless performances to the casting just as much as the acting. They were casting actors, not characters, and that absolutely worked in this film.
I’m sure my summary made this film seem serious and brutal, and it is, but you’ll just have to trust me when I say this film had me practically crying from laughter several times. If you can handle a lot of language and some psychologically disturbing moments, it’s well worth it to see the antics of the Ministers as they attempt their power grabs to varying degrees of success.
And I’ll venture out there and say this is my favorite new score I’ve heard in a while. So If you’re not convinced that a movie about Stalin and the Great Purge and the Soviet Union can be as hilarious as I’m claiming it is, then absolutely still watch it for the score!