The United Kingdom has been updating contingency plans for the inevitable death of Queen Elizabeth II for more than half a century. Upon the sovereign’s death, the cry that will ring throughout Buckingham Palace is “London Bridge is down!” A stable constitutional monarchy that hasn’t been successfully invaded in more than 950 years has the luxury of attending to such matters well in advance.
In The Death of Stalin, the Soviet autocrat suffers a cerebral hemorrhage at his country home less than a decade after the Red Army expelled the Nazis from Russian territory during World War 2. Discovered the next morning, house staff inform the Politburo, including the lily-livered Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), scheming Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), and the malevolent, Cheney-esque head of the security forces, Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). What follows is a dark satire of power, more war-room than drawing-room, that depicts the machinations over who will succeed Stalin as a form of office politics with existential stakes.
While the early 1950s were more than a decade after the peak of the 1936-38 Great Purge, we see officers pushing people down staircases and abducting them from their apartments in the middle of the night. The camera’s sweep captures summary executions of low-level staff, even maids playing walk-on parts, as casually as cocktail party guests populating the background of a dinner scene. This paranoia reaches right to the top. Indeed, only the night before his death, Stalin added Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov — the namesake of the Molotov cocktail, played by Monty Python veteran Michael Palin — to an updated list of enemies of the State. Gathered around the ailing Stalin’s body on the carpet, no one utters an equivalent to “London Bridge is down.” They don’t even call a doctor. Mostly, it’s because they can’t — all the good doctors are dead or banished to Siberia.
“I’m intrigued by power,” says Death of Stalin writer-director Armando Iannucci, who also co-created the HBO series Veep and served as its showrunner for the first four seasons. “In something like this, if you get it wrong, it’s not just an embarrassment: You’re killed. That makes it more akin to something like The Godfather or Game of Thrones or Julius Caesar.”
Russia has been at the heart of geopolitical maelstrom for a while now — only eight days after the assassination attempt on a suspected double agent, another prominent Russian exile has turned up dead in London — but that’s not how the film started out.
“We shot this in the summer of 2016,” Iannucci says. “And there I was, editing it, when Trump was elected. Beria talks about ‘false narrative,’ which is fake news. It’s even got the same initials!”
He underscored this point further in a brief intro to the film at the Alamo Drafthouse – New Mission Theater later that night, saying that after leaving Veep, he “wanted to get as far away from U.S. politics as possible. So why not make something about a delusional narcissist who terrifies his country?”
American politics caught up to him, however, although we are nowhere near what the U.S.S.R. endured. But historical accuracy was important, and although the film shortens nine months of history into 12 days or so, no less a scholar of Russia than Masha Gessen praised the film, calling it “perhaps the most accurate picture of life under Soviet terror that anyone has ever committed to film.” To Iannucci, there was no alternative than to portray tyranny as oafishness.
“The only way I could possibly dare to do comedy alongside torture and shooting was only if it was all part of what happened,” he says, adding that “I’m kind of relieved now that I’m not doing any fictional version of what’s happening now. It’s never going to match.”
To acquire rapid expertise in the Soviet period, Iannucci — who in spite of his Italian name and heritage, is very much a Scot — became an amateur Kremlinologist, touring sites of historical significance like high-level apartments. Although the production team had official minders, they mostly requested that the crew stay out of, or refrain from taking pictures in, culturally sensitive areas.
The resulting film is a masterpiece of a particular strain of absurdism. Characters fall all over themselves — in a very British way — to praise the leader in the event the room is bugged. Stalin’s son Wassily is a drunken boor, his daughter Svetlana savvier but still cosseted and naive. Tambor’s Malenkov is vain and weak, claiming to dye his hair out of a somber duty to “look good for the people.” (In the film’s version of his official portrait, Malenkov looks like T. S. Eliot in middle age.) Intertitles here and there quote the Soviet protocol on what to do when a leader is incapacitated, underlining the discord. As in so many other films, it’s Buscemi’s cunning demeanor — he appears disarming even when he plays a psychotic — that wins out. In a nod to the real-life Khrushchev’s 1956 “We will bury you!” rant at NATO diplomats, Buscemi’s Khrushchev threatens Beria with the same fate. (It’s a weird play on words, too: Beria / “bury you.”)
The Russian government gave its assent to the finished product, which was also based on a French graphic novel. After press screenings, Russian media praised the decision to cast British and American actors who didn’t speak in bad Russian accents. (“The question is which Russian accent, because there are hundreds,” Iannucci observes. “Khrushchev was from Ukraine. Beria and Stalin were from Georgia. They could speak in a completely different language if they wanted to.”)
But The Death of Stalin has since been banned in Russia, although Iannucci suspects it’s a temporary measure until the presidential election winds down in April. One wonders what Putin’s bureaucrats took offense to. The remark that the five-foot, six-inch Stalin looked so “small” in death, maybe? Putin is only about an inch taller.
“It feels slightly out-of-character in that they panicked at the last minute,” he says. “They gave it a license. They’d seen it, and it was dubbed into Russian. … It’s not going to stop it. Russians are expert at going online and hacking into things.”
The Death of Stalin, opens Thursday, March 15 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema, the Alamo Drafthouse – New Mission, and Shattuck Cinemas.