Wednesday, April 04, 2018
The Death of Stalin
The film opens with a farcical set piece. Radio Moscow has just aired a Mozart concerto. Stalin calls and wants a recording of it. Problem: they didn't record it. So, fearing for their lives, everyone recreates the concerto. However, the pianist (Olga Kurylenko) doesn't want to. She has no love for Stalin, who had her whole family murdered. She does it for money, but includes a note in the record sleeve wishing for Stalin's death. He obliges.
This sets in motion a scrambling for power, as the ministers of his cabinet jockey to get on top of the other guy. The heir is Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) but he is extremely weak (he says at one point that he can't keep track of who's alive or dead) and has horrible hair ("did Coco Chanel take a shit on your head?" someone asks). The real juice is between Kruschev (Steve Buscemi), a whirligig of action (he shows up after Stalin's attack in his pajamas), and Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of the NKVD (they put all the people to death), a sadistic rapist. On the sidelines is Molotov (Michael Palin), who has escaped death by the hair of his chin, and then finds out his wife is alive, thinking she was dead (depending on who he is talking to, she is a treacherous slut or his loving wife).
The movie reminded me of both A Lion in Winter, with its elaborate chess game for power, and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, for the farcical aspects--there is a prize at the end, and only one person is going to get it, and the others may well be shot.
After so many films using Nazis as de facto villains, it's nice to see the Stalinists, who were every bit as brutal, get their due (the Russians are not happy with this film, as they apparently have not learned the lessons that Germans did). The Soviet leadership is completely corrupt, and Stalin puts out lists, given to Beria, for those to be eliminated. Beria dreams up ways for some to be killed--he once strangled to death the elderly mother of a man about to be executed right in front of him--and because of these lists every man is completely afraid of Old Joe, down to recalling their conversations with him with their wives, and noting what jokes he laughed at and those he didn't.
Eventually Khruschev will work to oust Beria, his strongest competition, and enlists the aid of General Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) a raging erection of a man. The film is savage as it is funny, and some of the events hit like a punch to the stomach. If you are unaware of Soviet history I won't spoil things for you, but the last shot is perfect, especially if you remember Leonid Brezhnev's eyebrows.
The actors are all British and American, and use their own accents, thus Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) speaks with a Cockney accent. Iannucci forgoes everyone speaking like Boris Badanov. Everyone is wonderful, but Beale and Buscemi are the hearts that keep it beating. Buscemi has some great put-downs, calling someone a "camel cock" and "Slim Hitler." As the ministers stand in front of Stalin's coffin during the viewing, he tries to swap places with Malenkov, looking like the figure in a clock. "What the fuck are you doing?" Malenkov asks him. When Stalin's imbecilic son (Rupert Friend) says he wants to speak at his father's funeral, Kruschev says, "And I want to fuck Grace Kelly."
Put it down now--The Death of Stalin will be in my top five for the year.