The Death Of Stalin, the latest from bleak satire master Armando Iannucci, turns his talents for pained mockery of government types toward the past. Having previously lanced the boils of Tory government in the UK or centrist-liberal fantasy-making in the US, Iannucci here reaches back to the end of the second major phase of Soviet history.
Not yet called the KGB, Stalin’s internal terror squads of NKVD roam the country snatching up whoever he’s decided should be purged. Iannucci snatches some joke, but mostly he’s taking the blue-hats quite seriously, as deadly symbol of a madman’s grip.
Wait, did I say seriously? Sorry. This shit’s hilarious. Grimly so, but hilarious. The dictator’s fidgety relationship with kill lists has every chapter of Soviet society on its best possible behavior, from the hapless artsy types Iannucci opens on at an orchestral performance, to the highest ranks of Stalin’s government: the ministers who carry the load in what is perhaps the funniest movie you’ll see this year.
Every exchange of words crackles with the deep-blue electricity on which Iannucci built a name. If you’ve ever even mildly enjoyed a single web clip from Veep, you’d be an idiot not to go see this thing. The visual artistry of the medium don’t just take a back seat here. They’re way up in the nosebleeds, as is typical for the guy who made In The Loop mostly by pointing his camera at the actors in time for them to give delicious readings of his meticulously crafted dialog. But it’s worth noting a slight differentiation here from that simpler filmmaking style. Our vulgar Scotsman seems to have grown comfortable trying to reinforce some of his ideas through visual-layer technique.
There’s still not much creative camera work or significant, thematically poignant editing to speak of. Still, the action takes place in two relentlessly different color palettes and backgrounds. Iannucci has taken pains to toggle between the antiseptic green-yellow-grey spectrum, for common folk and artists and gulag prisoners, and the lusher, tonier red-blue-brown hues that high officers can relax into. If you failed to notice this lushness in Stalin’s home, don’t worry. He makes sure you notice, by having a cadre of soldiers sack the place post-Morten to strip it of any evidence that the leader was living higher on the hog than the head of an egalitarian socialist order ought to. It is one of many clever flourishes of blocking and screenwriting.
Steve Buscemi’s irascible turn as Niketa Kruschev should win him some trophies come next winter, but it’s the ensemble of Stalin’s cabinet as a whole that carries this thing. The pitter-pat rhythm they work through is irresistible, even as the content of the writing disturbs. If we had only Iannucci’s dialog and this cast’s glimmer-eyed insanity of a performance tour de force, it would be enough. But the blocking is rich with sneaky non-verbal jokes, too. Men rush to outdo one another in shows of grief for the fallen leader, but interrupt their own performance on the realization they’ve knelt in a puddle of his piss. Still, the grimmest, most consistent joke how these vain, craven politicians scheme as ritual slaughter happens all around them.
A moment in the earliest scenes of The Death Of Stalin is instructive here. It’s also the first moment when Iannucci spotlights the dreadful coldness underlying his hallmark graceless fuckery of government functionaries. Iannucci cuts away from the giddy slapstick of the symphony performance to Stalin’s inner circle, pants-shittingly drunk and swapping war stories. The jovial scene is a sandcastle; everyone in the room knows the dear leader’s whims are shifty. When Jeffrey Tambor’s Milyukov forgets, for a moment, that one of the old crowd not present for the carousing has already been ordered killed, the room goes quiet. Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Stalin’s faithful NKVD head, breaks the tension with a diversion to other old jokes. But Iannucci’s camera lingers, for a half moment, on Tambor’s exhausted, terrified, sweating visage. We see a man wondering if he’s just put a bullet in his own head. The giddy delirium of Iannucci’s comedic triumph gives way, just for an instant, to frigid terror.
Milyukov’s problem, you see, is he can’t remember what he is and isn’t allowed to say. He knows the rules – don’t make fond mention of those who Stalin put underground, as Stalin’s word is party law and contradictions of it are treason – but stumbled for a second and lost track of which friends live on and which got crosswise with the boss. This, I think, is the closest Iannnucci gets to a lesson: the secret languages of right and wrong that replace the truth are universal, not specific to Stalinist Russia or MAGA twitter. They are always threatening, from the margin, to swallow honest reasoning in a toxic fog of doctrine.