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Film Review: The Death of Stalin - A Comedy Revolution?

In the Kremlin no one can hear you scheme. So read a poster outside the building in Warren Street where a screening was held of ‘The Death Of Stalin’, the new film and Soviet satire directed by Scottish satirist and Oscar-nominated Armando Iannucci, which hits British cinemas this October.

Iannucci, who has been described by The Daily Telegraph as the “hardman of political satire” and directed the critically acclaimed ‘The Thick of It’ TV series and the film ‘In The Loop’, was attracted to the graphic novel that was turned into The Death of Stalin.

Based on a number of true events around the death of Joseph Stalin (‘Man of Steel’), the British-French-Belgium co-production runs to 107 minutes and was shot in locations in London, Moscow and Kiev. And, no expense seems to have been spared in shooting the scenes.

Deportations to gulags, death purges and mass executions might not be subjects that lend themselves naturally to humour and mirth. Indeed, historians generally agree that Stalin was responsible for around 20 million deaths. And, whilst pre-dating events depicted in the film, it was as the Yalta Conference (4 February 1945) that Stalin with Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. - the 'Big Three' powers - approved the loss of Poland's eastern territories to the Soviet Union. This made up about 50% of the territory of pre-war Poland.

Iannucci has nevertheless over recent years has proven himself capable of getting laughs out of what would seem the driest of topics, what with TV shows about Whitehall in ‘The Thick Of It’ and Washington in ‘Veep’.

There was of course Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film ‘The Great Dictator’, his first true sound film and a condemnation of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, fascism and antisemitism. Becoming his most commercially successful film, it was nominated for five Academy Awards.

Let’s also not forget Mel Brook’s 1967 film ‘The Producers’, which features the fictional musical ‘Springtime for Hitler’ (A Gay Romp With Eva and Adolf at Berchtesgaden). But they show just what is possible, even if it is not in the best possible taste.

For some the genre might not exactly fit that well, as a Czech friend and BAFTA member who had invited me to the screening remarked afterwards. Indeed, this September a high-ranking Russian official with the culture ministry was reported to have said that the Russian authorities were considering a ban on the film as it could be part of a “western plot” to destabilise the country.

The language is fairly coarse throughout, although nothing that would be out of place for spin doctor Malcolm Tucker in ‘The Thick Of It’.

Iannucci’s film is based on a number of true events in 1953 - before and after the death of Joe Stalin - and played by Adrian McLoughlin, until a fatal heart attack. This leads to a power vacuum at the highest levels of government and cue the plotting by his subordinates to assume control.

The film opens at a concert hall where Radio Moscow is broadcasting a classical recital. Paddy Considine, who plays Comrade Andryev, Head of Radio Moscow, receives a call from Stalin - who has the “sharpest ears in the Soviet Union” - ordering him to provide a recording of the event.

Unfortunately the recital was not recorded and its conclusion, it prompts Considine to demand what is left of the audience to remain for the whole concert to be performed again - gathering up others from the street - and even getting a new conductor dragged out of bed and conducting the orchestra in his dressing gown.

Frantically Comrade Andryev tells the audience: “Nobody’s going to be killed. This is just a musical emergency!” The pianist, played by Olga Kurylénko, a French actress of Ukrainian origin and a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace, initially refuses to perform again but is cajoled with an offer of 20,000 Roubles.

All this happening while people are being rounded up across Moscow for summary shootings and deportations. And, of course Stalin has sent all the best doctors to the gulag, which is an issue after he keels over and the plotters are scratching their heads over what to do next.

Shakespearean actor Simon Russell Beale, described by The Independent as the ‘greatest stage actor of his generation’, plays Lavrentiy Beria, head of the Soviet secret police apparatus NKVD and chief torturer. This is albeit that he is a monster who has murdered and raped untold Russians. That said, Russell Beale must be in the running for an award for his robust performance.

On seeing Stalin collapsed and motionless on the floor of the dictator’s study he says it: “Smells like Baku piss house.” And, to Nikita Khrushchev, leader of Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964, played by the excellent Steve Buscemi, known for his oddball roles, he says: “So many changes to come and you’re going to like some of them Niki.”

It was funny seeing Buscemi dressed up in pyjamas underneath a big blue suit among the plotters as they discussed what to do next in the study over the man himself. And, a scene at Stalin’s funeral procession had the audience at the screening in stitches, where Buscemi’s character tries to coax Malenkov, played by Jeffrey Tambor, into swapping positions around the coffin on display.

Malenkov’s portrayal by Tambor, who played Hank in the ‘Larry Sanders Show’, depicts him as an imaged-obsessed buffoon who is ultra careful with his words. A macho Field Marshall Zukov, a Soviet Red Army officer who became Chief of General Staff, is played by Jason Isaacs in a broad Yorkshire accent, remarking to Malenkov: “Did Coco Chanel take a shit on your head?” In fact, apart from Kurylénko there is not one Russian accent in the film. Svetlana Stalin is played by English actress Andrea Riseborough.

As well as Michael Palin in the role of Molotov, Soviet Foreign Secretary, who brings something of the Monty Python to proceedings with an hilarious speech during a committee meeting in the wake of Stalin’s death, Paul Whitehouse of ‘The Fast Show’ makes up the protagonists as stroppy Bolshevik Politburo member Anastas Mikoyan. His character, sitting next to Buscemi says: “Nikita Khrushchev, funeral director, it suits you…at least that face.”

One could see the cast as an unlikely, incongruous and multifaceted combination depicting the last days of Stalin. Iannucci, along with co-writers David Schneider and Ian Martin, certainly know how to send things up in the various scenes with all the double talk, cronyism and conniving between members of the Presidium - pushing the envelope on the ludicrousness front. For a trailer of the film see: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukJ5dMYx2no

About the author: Roger Aitken is a freelance writer who contributes to Forbes (www.forbes.com/sites/rogeraitken) amongst other titles and has worked for the FT.