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The Death of Stalin, a black comedy from the creator of Veep, turns politics into purgatory

Authoritarians and their sycophants get the Iannucci treatment, and it’s deadly serious.

Jason Isaacs in The Death of Stalin
Jason Isaacs in The Death of Stalin
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The central thesis of political satirist Armando Iannucci’s work can be summed up thusly: Politics is the bleakest kind of purgatory.

In shows like Veep and The Thick of It, and the 2009 film In the Loop, Iannucci populates his worlds with characters doomed to a kind of death by bureaucracy. They’re all Sisyphus, cursed for their hubris by a malevolent god to roll a rock up a hill. Then it rolls back. Repeat forever.

The thing that makes Iannucci’s work sing is that with a few exceptions, his characters are all too self-deluded, narcissistic, evil, or dumb to realize that what they’re doing is a curse they brought on themselves. In Veep, for instance, Selina Meyer can’t manage to get a single thing done despite being the vice president of the United States, and her staff are too drunk by proximity to supposed power and existential despair to do anything more than run around in ineffective circles. It’s pitch-black and hilarious and kind of depressing when matched up against the reality of Washington, DC. We laugh, because otherwise we’d drown in tears.

Now he’s gone and made a movie about the Russians (based on a French graphic novel). The Death of Stalin is based, sort of, on real events. It opens as the Soviet dictator catches the end of a live concerto on radio and phones the venue, asking for a recording. The concert has not been recorded. A panicked staffer runs into the departing crowd and orders them to sit down and perform the concerto again. “We will applaud,” he says. And the implication, everyone knows, is that not obeying could get you shot.

Stalin does indeed eventually die, but not before we’re introduced to his inner circle, the Central Committee, an obsequious cohort of yes-men who stumble over one another to make the leader laugh without inadvertently offending him. The group includes Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and others. Everyone’s jockeying for position but trying to stay off the “list” of people suspected to oppose or be otherwise inconvenient to the state.

When the Dear Leader has a stroke alone in his office one night — then lays in a puddle of his own urine until morning, which furnishes a running joke once he’s found — the Central Committee starts to put in motion the laws regarding succession, while military leader Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), Stalin’s children Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), and more people show up. There’s some very dark comedy indeed, brought on by the fact that all of the good doctors have been either sent to the gulag or killed under suspicion of trying to poison Stalin.

And then, of course, Stalin goes and dies.

In such a crowd of sycophants, the question of who can perform devotion to Stalin the best is an important one. Once the leader is gone, though, it’s like a giant game of chicken: Who will crack first and say something bad? How much power can you grab for yourself without someone accusing you of disloyalty and hauling you out back to get shot?

The Death of Stalin
The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin is grounded in history but meant for our time

It is bleak stuff, and rendered with less of Iannucci’s signature rat-a-tat-tat joke delivery (though it’s not devoid of some truly inspired epithets). Most of the film’s comedy is situational rather than textual, which is to say that it’s funny because it’s true. Ordinary people living under the thumb of cruel dictatorships are in a perpetual state of placid terror, trying to go unnoticed, and those characters are all over The Death of Stalin (and disposed of unceremoniously). Those who choose to serve the authoritarian leader — to hang out with him, flatter him, laugh at his jokes, watch his John Wayne movies — force themselves into the iron cage. Once you’ve climbed that ladder and been that close to power, you can’t go back. But you’ve placed a big target squarely on your forehead.

The movie is in English, no Russian accents, and the few times we see printed “Russian” it’s strangely readable. The point is obvious. This is a story about Russia, and it’s grounded in fact, but it’s intended for us and our time.

The Death of Stalin is Iannucci’s most complex and almost nihilistic rendering of what politics is: A team of bumbling and weak-minded people who lack any real conviction other than a desire for power and position. They aren’t quite in hell; they’re definitely not in heaven. It’s death by middle position, the bleakest version of purgatory on earth with no redemption allowed, and the biggest joke of it all is that they’ve put themselves there on purpose.

The Death of Stalin opens in limited theaters on March 9.

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