Grab your glasnost, 3.5 comrades. It’s time for some perestroika.
BQB here with a review of the comedic farce, The Death of Stalin.
At the outset, you wouldn’t a movie about the death of one of the most prolific mass murderers in history would be the stuff of comedy gold. Ironically, you’d be wrong. As the film takes you by the hand and introduces you to the ultra-paranoid society of 1950s Russia, you immediately find a time when the tiniest slip-up, be it a poorly chosen word, an unavoidable mistake or even the wrong look on your face can land you and your family imprisoned in a gulag if you’re lucky, or lined up against a wall and shot if you’re not.
I know. It still doesn’t sound funny, does it? Well, there is plenty of horror mixed in, but the humor comes from the political wrangling of Stalin’s boot licking lackeys in the wake of their fearless leader’s demise. All sat idly by and supported the executions of millions of their countrymen, but now, they’re so desperate to save their own skins that they’ll say or do anything, literally anything…no matter how foolish it makes them look, or how obviously contrary to the obvious truth it may be.
Early on in the film, we’re given a primer on life for the average Russian under Stalin. A symphony’s performance concludes, and musicians and audience members alike begin to retire for the evening. Suddenly, a technician for the local radio station covering the event receives a telephone call. Stalin himself wants a copy of the recording of the performance to listen to.
Problem? There isn’t one. The performance was just broadcast live. In any other world, the tech’s head wouldn’t be in danger. He’d simply apologize and promise to do better, making a note to be sure to record all future performances.
But failure isn’t an option here. Ergo, the technician, fearful for his own life, turns from mild-mannered man to furious beast, locking the symphony hall doors and barking orders at audience members and musicians alike, demanding they all return to their places and do it again.
Once the situation is explained to all in attendance, they comply. Impoverished peasants are brought in to replace audience members who already left. You wouldn’t think fewer audience members would be a big deal but the tech sweats every last detail, fearful that fewer bodies will throw the acoustics off. Meanwhile, the conductor has already left, so an alternate maestro is rousted out of bed and left to conduct the re-do in his bath robe.
Ultimately, hundreds of people all come together to remake the evening’s performance, all fearful that a refusal to play their part will learn to their imminent deaths.
This is life under Stalin. It isn’t just a matter of shut your mouth and tow the Communist Party line, although even that to someone from a free society would seem unbearable. No, it’s worse than that. Stalin’s grip is so ironclad that the slightest, most unintended offense is enough to bring about your doom.
When Stalin falls terminally ill, the race is on for his inner circle of toadies and yes men to save their hides as well as their political careers. They must walk a delicate tight rope in which they outdo each other in being the loudest to proclaim their love of Stalin, all the while trying to implement reforms that will keep the people from revolting amidst a power vacuum. If you’re impressed by the reforms, don’t be. People will still be imprisoned and shot, just fewer and not as at random.
Ultimately, it’s a battle royale between Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) the head of the Russian Secret Police and the man who carries out Stalin’s executions and Communist party secretary Nikita Khruschev (Steve Buscemi.)
Beria is a sadist, a cold and calculating killer whose psychopathic ways are fully sanctioned by the state, giving him an air of heroism when at any time he’d probably be more suited for a straight jacket in a mental hospital. On a regular basis, he delivers lists of people who Stalin wants killed to his forces, including intricate orders of how these so-called enemies are to die. When you hear, “Shoot her first but make sure he sees it,” you, the viewer, realize you’re not watching a government at work but rather, a glorified Mafia organization.
Beria’s resume is so gruesome that you wonder why you haven’t heard of him. On top of the murders, he’s also a serial rapist. He openly boasts of the scores of wives who have sex with him in the hopes that doing so will get their husbands released from prison. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. On top of that, he’s a pedophile, ordering his men to scoop up young girls to be used as his playthings.
He is a schemer and his struggle for power is humorous. His idea of reform is to strike Stalin’s kill lists and replace them with kill lists of his own.
Meanwhile, Buscemi plays Khruschev like a washed up old stand up comic. Each evening, Nikita goes home and dictates the day’s doings to his wife, who writes down every joke and comment he made to Stalin, along with Stalin’s reaction. In the morning, his wife reads back the list, and Nikita commits to memory the topics that got a positive reaction and a negative one, thus reinforcing to the secretary what he needs to say and not say in order to keep his head on his shoulders another day.
As Beria and Nikita try to one up each other, they each vye for the hearts and minds of Stalin’s crew of degenerates. These include Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Stalin’s heir apparent who obviously isn’t suited for the job. Tambor plays the part as a nervous man with a perpetually unsettled stomach, one who is weak and indecisive, changing his mind regularly on which man he’ll support based on who is currently pulling ahead in the battle of wits.
Molotov, another henchman, becomes a crucial power player. Stalin’s death allows Beria to save him from a kill list but Nikita lobbies him extensively. Despite having been placed on a kill list, Molotov still speaks highly of Stalin and even openly curses his beloved yet long imprisoned wife as a traitor, not because he believes any of this but because he wants to stay alive.
In the end, you find yourself rooting for Nikita as the least shitty apple in a bunch of truly shitty apples. My main criticism is that as shitty as Beria is, you might lose sight amidst the hi-jinx that Nikita and company all stood by and were happy to let him do his evil deeds as long as it suited them, only to then distance themselves from the madness when it equally suited them.
STATUS: Shelf-worthy. If you watch it and still think socialism is a good idea, get your head examined.