History and Hollywood are overflowing with tales of tyrants who dominated through brutality, repression, and manipulation. What is less widely discussed is what happens when a tyrant’s reign of terror is finally brought to an end. The 2018 dark satire The Death of Stalin explores the outrageous ways that the most elite members of the Soviet government sought to obtain and maintain control in the wake of dictator Joseph Stalin’s sudden death in 1953. At once a slapstick spoof of the corrupting influence of politics and an indictment of the all too real horrors that ran rampant in the Soviet Union, The Death of Stalin is a film that is certain to slay you.
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The story begins with a darkly ironic glimpse into the daily absurdities of life in the Soviet Union as a Moscow orchestra scrambles to recreate a concert performance in order to appease Stalin’s whim for a recording. Through this opening depiction of the hysterical levels of fear that the mere mention of Stalin’s inspires in the musicians the film perfectly captures the Orwellian nightmare that was everyday life under Stalin’s rule. The film then shifts its focus from the populace that the dictator brutalized into submission to the political cronies and henchmen who enabled his reign to endure. Following a brief introduction to the sycophancy and underhandedness that dominated Stalin’s inner circle, the film portrays the dictator’s sudden death from a stroke. The film then quickly spirals into a madcap race against time as the most elite figures in the Soviet Union face off in a power struggle that will define Russian politics for decades to come.
Made in the tradition of such biting political comedies as Ninotchka and The Great Dictator, The Death of Stalin provides a wry look at politics at their most poisonous. From the moment that Stalin is found unconscious in a puddle of his own urine the film morphs into something akin to ‘Survivor: Soviet Moscow’ as the dictator’s closest allies make and break alliances in accordance with the shifting political climate. All the while the wit remains razor sharp and the insults fly faster than a firing squad’s bullets as the USSR’s most elite bumble, bicker, and double-cross their way to the top. The shenanigans that ensue are comic in their absurdity, even as they highlight the brutality, paranoia, and hysteria that dominate life under repressive regimes. The film wisely maintains its darkly comic focus upon the hapless schemers jockeying to take Stalin’s place, rather than the ordinary citizens caught in the crossfire. As a result, the film functions as a scathing indictment of the lunacy that was Stalinism rather than a tasteless dismissal of its millions of victims. Although the central players are historical figures, the power plays that they ruthlessly engage in remain as startlingly relevant today as they were during the height of the Cold War.
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The expert performances of the film’s international cast deftly keep the film balanced between slapstick spoof and historical drama. Steve Buscemi nearly steals the film in his slick turn as Nikita Krushchev, which plays like a Cold War twist on his popular role of Boardwalk Empire’s politician turned gangster Nucky Thompson. Jeffrey Tambor is hilariously inept as the ever one step behind Georgy Malenkov. Jason Isaacs lends roguish charm and plenty of swagger to his role as World War II hero and Red Army chief of staff General Zhukov. Simon Russell Beale manages to be both comic and chilling in his portrayal of notorious head of the secret police Lavrenti Beria. Rupert Friend is wonderfully outrageous in his performance as Stalin’s drunken buffoon son, Vasily. Andrea Riseborough aptly portrays Stalin’s sheltered daughter, Svetlana with an appropriate combination of snobbishness and naïveté.
A historical tale that could easily be ripped from today’s headlines, The Death of Stalin is simultaneously one of the most comic and tragic films of the year. Through its wickedly witty script the film sheds light onto the comically absurd events that transpired after Stalin’s death, while also reminding audiences of the millions who suffered under the rule of Stalin and his cohorts. The ensemble cast turn in expert performances that will have even the most casual students of history laughing out loud. For a film that will have you dying with laughter don’t miss The Death of Stalin.
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