Film review | The Death of Stalin

The maxim, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story," applies to the incidents revealed in writer/director Armando Iannucci’s account of the struggle for leadership in the Soviet Union following Josef Stalin’s death in 1953.

POWER PLAY: Jason Isaacs, as Georgy Zhukov, tries to take control following Stalin's funeral in the film that satirises his death.

POWER PLAY: Jason Isaacs, as Georgy Zhukov, tries to take control following Stalin's funeral in the film that satirises his death.

Stalin’s death is fact. 

But the details of the struggle between the remaining members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party are conjecture, and a device to allow Iannucci to do what he has done in the TV series Veep. 

In Veep, he dissects the political cunning and treachery that happens in the office of high-ranking government officials in the United States.

The outcome is humour, and a scathing indictment of political processes that promote the political fortunes of the elected politicians rather than benefit a country’s citizens.

In his foray into the machinations of Russia’s historical political entanglements, there is a significant element that makes for uneasy viewing.

In the battle for supremacy of Russia’s Central Committee between Khrushchev, Beria, Molotov and Malenkov, there exists a dark and deadly undercurrent of torture, murder, and rape that occurred in the Soviet Union under Stalin and involving these individuals.

That makes for troubled and fraught comedy, even if that comedy is designed to mock these individuals. The outcome of the Central Committee’s treachery is the death and incarceration of millions of people who did not fit these men’s revolutionary vision.

In Veep, the result of mismanagement and political positioning is embarrassment and cynicism.

In Stalin’s Russia, the result was death.

The film, in attempting to deal with the committee members’ behaviour while acknowledging their monstrous crimes, treats death in a cavalier manner.

We are not protected from violence and their punitive acts because we know, in reality under Stalin, that people died for inconsequential reasons.

You can’t tag a human being shot in the head in an offhand manner at the whim of a tyrannical leader as a punchline.

This is most evident when people are executed off-screen for transgressions that would only elicit scorn and a reprimand in the world of Veep.

Khrushchev and company become the stand-up comedians of the Russian Revolution in Iannucci’s film.

Following Stalin’s death, the humourous moments are more relaxed in their characterisation of the revolutionaries. 

Iannucci made a deliberate decision to not have the actor’s speak in mock Russian accents. That was the right decision. The actors' speak in accents ranging from an American Khrushchev to a British Molotov and it works.

The undercurrent of terror, brutality, and fear, still pervades the proceedings.

The Death of Stalin is both scathing in its depiction of party political revisionism and uneasy dealing with the brutality of Stalin’s regime.