I once again entered the local hipsterplex to watch The Death of Stalin. The trailers before the film established once again that as a glib I was a stranger in a strange land. There was a trailer for a sad looking rodeo movie and a documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsberg which received audible applause from the audience. After the applause I couldn’t help but wonder what the rest of the audience thought of the film and of Stalin. I assume they all disliked Stalin but likely had blinders on for certain aspects of why he was terrible which is a trait I believe the film mostly shared.
The film is directed by the creator of the HBO show Veep. I haven’t seen any of that show so I can’t comment on the similarities. The film’s tone reminded me of a more cosmopolitan take on Monty Python, less loose, less cutting. The Python connection is reinforced by the presence of Michael Palin as one of the minor cabinet members Molotov. The film brought forth a couple chuckles but it didn’t really have any laugh out loud moments. The film mostly explores what totalitarian power does to people, the mind games, the unsure standing and most of all constant fear.
The film begins with a concert performance where Stalin calls the control board and asks them to call back, they do so only to find out he wanted a recording of the performance; unfortunately it wasn’t recorded. The reaction of the control board to this simple misunderstanding is the first example of the constant fear, the crew close the doors and prevent the orchestra and most of the audience from leaving this goes on for a while and a great deal of drama happens for a recording Stalin is likely only to listen to once. Stalin falls ill maybe a quarter way through the film and immediately the now open struggle for power begins before he is dead. In the film there are three main people in the straggle for power and they are arguably the three main characters of the film. They are Simon Beal as Beria, the director of security forces, Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev, head of the party and Jeffery Tambor as Malenkov.
Steve Buscemi’s Khrushchev is pretty much Steve Buscemi, a bit neurotic but not to Larry David levels. Khrushchev has the main character arc of the film. He starts out as one of many ministers and isn’t particularly powerful within the dynamic of the group, but he rises to the occasion and ends up leading the group against Beria. The film seems to present him as the good one, the smart one, the reasonable one, and the film is largely about how the totalitarian system of the Soviet Union under Stalin corrupts him through the horrible things he must do to survive.
Beria is portrayed as the villain, the one who gets things moving and forces a power struggle. He plots, he schemes, and seems to have been preparing for this for years. He is shown as being the most linked with Stalin’s system of terror and violence, but the most willing to openly distance himself from Stalin and the past. Simon Beal’s performance as Beria is tonally inconsistent; at times he is just goofy and slapstick as the rest of the group, but there are other moments where he seems to come from a darker and much more serious movie.
Tambor’s Malenkov is quiet, nervous and confused. He doesn’t seem very intelligent and reminded me of Lurch from the Addams Family, which made it funnier for me when Beria compared him to Boris Karloff. His character isn’t very active throughout the film and the performance doesn’t go very deep because of that. He inherits the position of leader once Stalin dies and it seems like he was put in that position by Stalin as a political pace car for the rest of the ministers.
Strangely, but not super surprisingly, the film doesn’t really address communism, there are hints towards it but for the most part the focus is on the idea of Stalin as a dictator who rules by murder and fear. The film goes into the constant cautiousness and the double think it requires to survive in Soviet Russia, but it never really explores how or why this system came about. One instance where a better understanding of how the filmmakers feel about this would have improved the film, is when we are shown the shabby conditions that Khrushchev and the others live in. Is this to show how even the powerful are poor under communism? Or more likely is this shown as a contrast to the wealth Stalin lives in and how a dictatorship is the ultimate system of inequality?
Ultimately, the film has left me inspired to show my appreciation for this platform to ramble about movies by starting a coup of my own and rise up against the Eternals in The Vortex and post the first and almost certainly last Waterfall Insurance links. I also thought I would try something else new and stay on topic.
- First the real deal.
- And the NY Times. They almost get it right but they throw in a couple lines brown-nosing Mao.
- The NY Times again, so brace yourself against the paywall, this time about Khrushchev.
- And I will end with a music link a childhood favorite. My mom hated this song, especially when my brother would play the video on the living room tv.