The Death of Stalin is a farce about the struggle for power in the Soviet Union after the death one of the most evil men that ever existed. It is hilarious, as long as you don’t concentrate too much on the fact that the events were real.
The year is 1953 and the people of the Soviet Union live under the constant threat that anyone at any time might suddenly be taken away by the Secret Police. Joseph Stalin has executed by the thousands his perceived enemies -real or imagined.
It does not sound like this could make a comedy film, but somehow, The Death of Stalin actually works. It shows in a comedic way the absurd lengths people will go to in order to avoid doing anything that may even slightly displease Stalin.
The Death of Stalin opens up with a beautiful classical music concert which is being broadcast on the radio. Stalin is in his dacha enjoying the broadcast. He calls the concert hall and tells them he liked the recital so much that he will be sending men over to the concert hall to pick up a copy of the recording.
The problem is that while the concert was being broadcast it was not actually being recorded. Of course, no one dares tell Stalin that. The only solution is for the musicians to immediately perform the entire concert again from the beginning and record it. Half the audience had already left, and the conductor points out that the acoustics will be bad in a half-empty hall. The concert hall manager is forced to literally drag workers off the street to fill the hall.
Steve Buscemi is Nikita Khrushchev, who has worked out a system to make sure he always pleases Stalin. In The Death of Stalin, Khrushchev comes home after a night of heavy drinking with Stalin. Before Khrushchev goes to sleep, he writes down exactly which jokes and subjects Stalin did or did not like that night. Khrushchev would review these notes before his next visit with Stalin as if he was studying for an exam. In real life, Khrushchev actually did this, which only shows that even the highest level people in the Soviet Union depended completely on keeping Stalin happy.
Khrushchev wanted to make sweeping changes to the Soviet Union, like releasing thousands of prisoners from the gulags, and removing restrictions on writers. However, if Stalin ever found out about these plans, then Khrushchev himself would have been sent to a gulag.
When Stalin suddenly dies, you would think it would be a time for celebration. Instead there is open panic. Beriya (Simon Russell Beale), the head of the Secret Police, plans to replace Stalin and begins arresting and executing anyone who gets in his way.
Caught in the middle of all this is the beautiful concert pianist Maria (Olga Kurylenko). She wants to make a stand and writes a letter directly criticizing Stalin. Khrushchev feels protective of Maria, since at one time she had given piano lessons to Khrushchev’s niece. Khrushchev must go to extreme lengths to keep the naive, idealistic Maria from being executed.
Throughout The Death of Stalin, all of the actors use their real accents. You are always aware of who they really are, which is part of the point. They are are doing an absurd spoof of a period in time which is almost too terrible to be shown literally.
One of our favorite actors in The Death of Stalin is Jason Isaacs who plays Field Marshal Zhukov, head of the Soviet Army. Zhukov is the one man who is not afraid of Stalin. The real Zhukov was one of the toughest men that ever walked the Earth, and the one man Stalin was afraid to have arrested. Stalin considered Zhukov a rival, but Zhukov was so popular with the rank and file for the Soviet Army that Stalin never dared touch him.
Khrushchev and Zhukov have a mutual hatred of Beriya, and plan to eliminate that monster. Beriya may control the State Security Forces, but Zhukov has the entire Soviet Army.
Jeffrey Tambor is Malenkov. Theoretically he is second in command after Stalin. However he is a weak individual easily manipulated by the stronger men around him.
Andrea Riseborough is Stalin’a daughter Svetlana. It takes her a while to understand how much danger she is in once he father dies. No one looking to take the top leadership wants anyone with the name Stalin around anymore.
By the end of The Death of Stalin you will be laughing, while at the same time thinking, “I really shouldn’t be laughing at this.”
- We rate The Death of Stalin Four Stars ****
- Read our review of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
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