I’d heard a lot of positive talk about the film The Death of Stalin when it first came out. It’s a satire taking place during Stalin’s death and the immediate aftermath as his closest aides run around in confusion trying to figure out what to do now the vozhd has expired, and I thought it would be something I’d either love or hate. I got a chance to watch it on the flight out to Thailand, and loved it.
Now I’ve read two very good books which cover Stalin’s inner circle – Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar and William Taubman’s Khrushchev: The Man And His Era – and I was somewhat chuffed to have identified the main characters before their names were displayed on the screen. I knew who each man was, what their background was, and what became of them which I believe made me enjoy the film all the more because I wasn’t confused over who was who. There were plenty of genuinely laugh-out-loud moments, many of which ought not to have been because of the deadly serious subject matter. Far from detracting from the horrors Stalin and his men visited on the Soviet Union, the film does a splendid job of letting the audience know how callously brutal they were and what a horrific era it was for people, even those with connections. There are scenes, and sometimes a mere phrase, which will make your blood run cold, and it’s a testament to the skill of the writers that a minute later you’re laughing again. This is black comedy at it’s finest, but anyone who thinks this film downplays the horrors of Stalin’s rule is sorely mistaken.
The time frame in which the main events take place has been shortened considerably from reality in order to make the film work and there are probably several other liberties taken by the writers which I’ve not spotted. However, there are other things which suggest the writers know their history and any deviations are deliberate rather than a result of ignorance. In the early scenes we learn that Vyacheslav Molotov’s wife has been arrested and he himself is shortly to be arrested and probably executed: this is true, and his life was almost certainly saved by Stalin’s sudden death. There is also a scene in which a KGB (strictly speaking, MGB) guard hands a man and woman a bunch of flowers outside the gates of the ministry: this too is accurate, but I’ll let you watch the film to understand its significance.
Unsurprisingly, The Death of Stalin was banned in Russia, in part because they believed Marshall Zhukov was portrayed as an idiot. I suspect his portrayal was inaccurate, but I didn’t see him as an idiot in the slightest: his arrival in the plot is hilarious and his presence one of the highlights of the whole film. In hindsight, it is surprising it’s taken this long to make a satire of Stalin’s inner court because there is no shortage of surreal elements. The film captures several of these, but the two books I mention contain dozens more. One I remember is Stalin’s habit of forcing everyone to eat huge quantities of food late at night, then make them dance immediately afterwards. Nikita Khrushchev, being nominally Ukrainian, was often required to dance a hopak: being a portly fellow in his late 60s and full of food and drink, it was a bizarre spectacle which Stalin, and no doubt others too, found highly amusing. These ritual humiliations of the USSR’s most feared and powerful men were a regular feature of Stalin’s regime hence the film has no need to exaggerate, even if a viewer unfamiliar with the period might think it so.
The acting is superb, and most actors look like the historical figures they’re portraying. Steve Buscemi is probably a little tall and thin for Khrushchev but his performance allows you to overlook that with ease; Michael Palin is also a bit too slim to play Molotov, and I thought his character was too nervous and indecisive, but these are mere quibbles. In summary, I can highly recommend it. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I might watch it again shortly.