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Comedy of terrors

Don’t expect historical fact just soak up the satire in Armando Iannucci’s portrayal of the unseemly power struggle when Uncle Joe Stalin’s Soviet rule abruptly comes to an end

20 October, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Simon Russell Beale and Jeffrey Tambor in Stalin Is Dead

Directed by Armando Iannucci
Certificate: 15

You may think there is very little funny about Stalin’s despotic rule of the USSR. But the ridiculous nature of his regime, and how it came to an end, has become fodder for this cutting satire from one of our best comedy writers, Armando Iannucci, supported ably by David Schneider.

Stalin Is Dead takes us to the last day of his life and the power struggle that followed as senior Politburo members jockeyed for position – not just to grab the reins of power but to protect themselves from the fallout.

Do not expect this film to offer much in the way of historical fact – though some of it is apparently based on true events – there are too many inconsistencies with known facts about the dictator’s death and what followed. But no matter – the idea that one person’s power over another is always hard to explain when common sense is applied runs throughout. And as with George Orwell’s Animal Farm, satire flowers beautifully in the fertile ground of crazed despotism.

Iannucci took the story from the French graphic novel The Death of Stalin by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. We are introduced to the atmosphere of Stalin’s Moscow in an opening scene where we meet technicians working for Radio Moscow – and the sheer terror they feel when Stalin calls up and asks for a recording of a concert – that they haven’t recorded. The whole concert must be played again or a gulag awaits, setting up an insight into the extraordinary fear people felt in Soviet Russia. Pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) slips a note into the record sleeve heading to Stalin – and it tells him he is a murderer.

Stalin (Rupert Friend) reads the letter and collapses, having had a stroke. We are treated to the following days as his henchmen jostle for position, try to save their skins, and arrange for the nation to cope with the loss of the nation’s Uncle Joe. Head of the NKVD, vicious murderer Beria (Simon Russell Beale, superb) has been doing his boss’s bidding for so long he knows that with Stalin’s death he must grab power – or perhaps be held accountable for the killings he has overseen. But Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) has other plans and before Stalin is cold, the plotting begins.

Littered with sharp oneliners, absurd moments and as watchable a gang of comedians you could hope to find in one spot, this film takes a tricky subject matter and runs with it, waving the scenario around its head and bellowing at the top of its lungs.

This isn’t, of course, the first time it has been the subject of satire. As well as Orwell, Arthur Koestler also sought ways to ridicule such tyranny at the time – but how contemporaneous to be reminded of the perils of nationalism, tyranny and the undermining of the rule of law.

I have only just about stopped giggling incessantly at In The Loop – and along comes Iannucci and a great cast to set me off again. At a time where the global political atmosphere can only make anyone with a brain – or heart – feel utter despair, perhaps being able to have a little chuckle at the ludicrous nature of too-powerful men running countries as personal fiefdoms is to be welcomed.


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