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The Death of Stalin

“It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us-the lesson of the fearsome word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.” 

Hannah Arendt

A fine admixture of comedy, history, and tragedy, Armando Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin penetrates into the satirical world of a horror in effect, making use of the balance between laughter and tears without losing the banality of evil.

The film,  based on graphic novels by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, revolves around a combination of fine actors (especially Jeffrey Tambor and Andrea Riseborough) in a chaotic scene surrounding the death of Stalin and the succession of leadership. Primarily, it is a duel between two men (Lavrenti Beria & Nikita Khrushchev) vying for position and the future shape of the Communist State (e.g. Khrushchev Thaw). Little about the film presumed to be above the reality of the horror that took place in its effort to repaint the events in a fashion of satire and insult to the Soviet  Union. The film would remind you about those on “the list” deemed for execution and the revolving question of who should and should not be axed. Thankfully Ianucci’s had the foresight not to force his cast to carry on using Russian accents and casting Risenborough was a wise decision given (what i consider) her status as the female version of Michael Stuhlbarg.

Certainly much about the film tried to entertain the audience beyond what was maybe appropriate given the gravity of the situation. There were certainly moments where the jokes were all too predictable and the writing wasn’t clever enough to break out of its situational dependency. Many of the actors didn’t really have the right dimensions for carrying on as comedians (e.g. Christoph Waltz). With the exception of a few choice scenes, the film was flat and the conversational comedy wanting.

For me, the most interesting question was the accuracy of the film and it’s probably those who know the history well that could readily pick up on some of the films better jabs.  For example, having background information surrounding the opening scene since Stalin spent much of his time at his dacha. As Khrushchev once remarked:

“As soon as he woke up, he would ring us— the four of us—and either invite us to see a film or start some long conversation about a question that could have been resolved in two minutes.”

Further, historical insights such as the one from Simon Sebag Montefiore explain a lot about the bumbling circus that ensued: “[The inner circle was] so accustomed to his minute control that they could barely function on their own.”

Of course, not everyone was jazzed given the seriousness of the subject. I found it more worthwhile to consider the views of historians rather than critics on this film. For example, Richard Overy cannot be faulted for noting the film’s many inaccuracies and its contribution to confusing our understanding of Russia in the 1950s, while mocking by implication the Russia of today. Likewise, Samuel Goff adds:

The Death of Stalin doesn’t just fall short when it comes to the kind of granular historical and cultural detail that I might call out; this is a film fundamentally ill equipped to locate the comedy inherent to Stalinism, missing marks it doesn’t know it should be aiming for.

Still, it was a daring script to attempt and the product showed sound competence from the Veep writer and Oscar-nominee (In the Loop). Aside from the films that tackle the adapted works of better writers (e.g. Much Ado About Nothing, Carnage, O Brother, Where Art Though?), I would place The Death of Stalin among the bottom of the better original comedies of the 21st century (e.g. Meet the Parents, Best in Show, The Meyerowitz Stories, In Bruges, Bridesmaids, Midnight in ParisRoyal Tenenbaums).


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