The Death of Stalin (2017)
October 20, 2017 9:15 AM - Subscribe

Armando Iannucci's jet-black comedy traces the frantic political machinations following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, centring on the race to replace him between the monstrous security chief Lavrentiy Beria (played by Simon Russell Beale) and Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi).

Well, I thought it was fantastic - very funny and very dark. The political jockeying (which verges on slapstick at times) is set against a backdrop of the commonplace slaughter that Beria was responsible for. I'm sure there are historical nitpickings to be made - for example, the events depicted in the film took place over a much longer period of time - but I think it's enormously valuable to have such a meditation on living in a totalitarian state at this moment in time. Especially timely that at the front of the list of Beria's crimes, when it comes down to it, are his Weinsteinian - perhaps even Savilian - tendencies, which are assiduously represented and apparantly indulged until suddenly they're not.

Also, the film annoys Putin, which makes it especially worth seeing.
posted by Grangousier (37 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
It's EXCELLENT. I annoyed everyone around me in theatre by laughing so hard and so constantly.

And the cast is an absolute murderer's row.
posted by sixswitch at 10:44 AM on October 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

Where is this playing? I had been keeping an eye on this (because I really want to see it), but now I see the listed release date is over a month ago. Has this already come and gone or is it still going to get a wider release?
posted by firechicago at 11:30 AM on October 20, 2017

It just opened in London today, but it's been at festivals and so forth for ages, so keep an eye out.
posted by Grangousier at 12:03 PM on October 20, 2017

I'm excited that Simon Russell Beale finally got some major screentime! I've been a big fan since listening to him anchor the BBC radio adaptations of John Le Carré's Circus novels. He voiced a subtle, humane George Smiley; it's going to be interesting to see him work the other side of the street as Beria. (It's going to be interesting to see him, full stop. Apart from a supporting role in Penny Dreadful, most of his career has been in theatre and radio.)
posted by Iridic at 12:59 PM on October 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Apparently this is getting a wide release in the US sometime next year, after showing at a couple festivals (so the September 8th release date is actually the date of the first showing at the Toronto Film Festival).

Also, this information only seems to exist as an aside on a couple of posts on the official Facebook page.
posted by firechicago at 1:28 PM on October 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

I would pay to see Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin and Steve Buscemi read from a John Green novel, and I HATE John Green novels.
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:56 PM on October 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

I was laughing out loud, but I wasn't annoying anyone else because the rest of the cinema was full of people laughing too. The Death of Stalin features scene after scene of comedy-writing genius - as you would expect from Iannucci - but alternates it so swiftly with brutal violence and terror, and presents the latter in such a deadpan and at times almost slapstick manner, that the combination becomes a strange but very effective comedy-horror.

That said, it works in large part because of the superb cast; what's notable in hindsight is that they really do work as an ensemble and there's no single role that dominates the film. Either Simon Russell Beale's Beria or Steve Buscemi's Khrushchev could have taken over a weaker cast, but Michael Palin's Molotov and Jeffrey Tambor's Malenkov balance them nicely. Jason Isaacs only turns up as Zhukov half way through the film, and is in a handful of scenes thereafter, but dominates every one.

(Oh, and if you've been watching Star Trek: Discovery, you'll find this film doubly hilarious, although you probably won't be able to see Captain Lorca in quite the same way again. I for one would offer good money to see Isaacs do an outtake scene playing Lorca with the same personality and accent he uses for Zhukov...)
posted by Major Clanger at 3:39 PM on October 20, 2017 [8 favorites]

Interview in The Guardian with Jason Isaacs on his role in The Death of Stalin; apparently his inspiration for the portrayal of Zhukov was Brian Glover (an actor who readily conceded that he played blunt Yorkshiremen so often because he was one.)

Also, how have I not been following Isaacs on Twitter before?
posted by Major Clanger at 1:47 AM on October 21, 2017 [3 favorites]

This isn't actually the first British comedic take on the subject - I'm surprised Red Monarch hasn't been mentioned before - in that, Brian Glover played Kruschev, who he resembled.

I too hoped that Isaacs would turn up on the bridge of the Discovery sporting a Yorkshire accent, though I'm not sure why. Perhaps his role in Skeletons.
posted by Grangousier at 3:32 AM on October 21, 2017 [1 favorite]

A few years ago I read a book that went into detail about Beria and this period and I was overwhelmed by how ... evil ... Beria was. "Evil" is the only word that comes close.

So I'm having some trouble imagining what this film is like. I think I would like to see it, though.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:14 AM on October 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Very much looking forward to seeng this, hopefully with an old Internationalist in tow...

Simon Russell Beale fans may like to listen to him read a two and a half hour long adaptation of Philip Pullman's The Book Of Dust on the virtual wireless.

For this highly anticipated novel, Radio 4 has cleared the Saturday afternoon schedule on 21st October for a special omnibus edition, featuring extra material, to be followed by a Book at Bedtime broadcast on weekdays from Monday 23 October - Friday 3 November.
posted by Devonian at 10:53 AM on October 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

Good news - it's doing boffo box.
posted by Devonian at 7:04 AM on October 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

Saw it yesterday and it was very good.

Someone on Twitter pointed out that that Malenkov was played by "hey now" Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor)". Hank and Malenkov both have scenes with a corset- co-incidence or in-joke?

I have read a fair number of reviews- mostly positive. The 'World Socialist Website' is the only negative review I have read- bemoaning "The betrayal of the Russian Revolution was one of the greatest tragedies in world history. Iannucci’s film doesn’t begin to confront the vast significance of the events in the Soviet Union." So be warned by the ominous open-ended review of a comedy- "This sort of unseriousness is one problem. There are others." Maybe they'll make a list.
posted by Gratishades at 4:54 AM on October 25, 2017

Good news - it's doing boffo box.

Iannucci has just tweeted that they’re doubling the number of screens showing it from today. Partner & I went to see it last night at an early evening showing & the (small, but still) room was full to the brim. Looks like it’s doing really well in the UK.

Personally, I thought it was fantastic: all of them were clearly having a great time chewing the scenery. Small shout out to Andrea Riseborough for absolutely nailing her small part: that barely controlled sense of hysteria that she gave Svetlana was perfect.

Also, I did not know just how much of a monster Beria was. Jeepers.
posted by pharm at 5:42 AM on October 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Also, I did not know just how much of a monster Beria was. Jeepers.

Yeah, I haven’t seen the movie (see above re: US release dates) but my understanding from a little knowledge of the history and from interviews with Iannucci is that if anything the movie slightly downplays his monstrousness, just because it would be impossible to fit all the awful things he did into a single feature film.
posted by firechicago at 6:50 PM on October 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

As a big Iannucci fan, I was looking forward to this, and saw it last night. It was an odd experience: I didn't laugh much, but still thought it an excellent film. I think the fact that it's Iannucci and that half the cast are recognisable comedians (not only the leads, but people like Justin Edwards in minor roles) lulls us into expecting boffo comedy when really what we have here is, as the tagline has it, terror. It certainly contains comedic moments, but I spent most of the film feeling viscerally terrified of the story and (some of) the characters - which is exactly as it should be.

This feels like an effect of living through the past 18 months. It's getting harder and harder to laugh at the people leading us to our doom, when the stakes are higher and higher. That doesn't mean we can't make fun of them - I still appreciate the work of people like Ann Telnaes for that - but it's impossible to make light of them. This is a time of dark political comedy, or no political comedy at all. And the darkest of political comedy is barely recognisable as comedy.

This is where I think Peter Hitchens missed the point. I don't think Iannucci is trying in any way to make light of Stalin or the events surrounding his death. He's using comic moments to enhance a fairly straightforward and effective depiction of a horrible reality: that everyone surrounding Stalin and Beria lived in terror. They lived in fear for their very lives.

Showing comic moments simply heightens the reality of the depiction, because comic moments are part of life, whether you're the humblest worker or the General Secretary. That was what made The Thick of It such a compelling portrait of the corridors of power: these people joke and swear and fumble, just like the rest of us. The effect in The Thick of It was funnier at the time because the stakes felt relatively low; pre-credit crunch, domestic UK politics wasn't nearly as cruel and vindictive as it feels today. The fourth season set at the beginning of the coalition years was still very funny, because austerity hadn't fully taken effect, and everything was up in the air. But I'm not that surprised that there hasn't been a fifth.

In its own way, The Death of Stalin achieves what Downfall did: it shows us that these monsters were human. But that's valuable. That's a warning, that we ordinary humans can become monsters too, if we aren't careful; or can fall victim to them.

So Hitchens is wrong. The Death of Stalin isn't a bad film, and it doesn't trivialise anything. It's an excellent film about bad people - including some of history's worst.

Hitchens also neglects the second major character's death in the film in his charge of trivialising. One might consider a gag about people not wanting to kneel in Stalin's piss to be making light of his death, although I don't. But there's nothing light about the execution of Beria and the disposal of his corpse. There was no pleasure in seeing countless extras shot at every turn, either. The audience I was with wasn't laughing at any of that. That doesn't make the film a failure.
posted by rory at 4:41 AM on October 28, 2017 [19 favorites]

P.S. This comment on Hitchens' post echoes my reaction, but Hitchens dismisses it with the comment "Well, at least we can agree it’s not funny. Trouble is, it is supposed to be" (my emphasis). Needless to say, I think he's wrong about that, too; he presumes far too much about the intent of the people involved in making it. This interview with Iannucci suggests his intent was far from making a laugh-a-minute film. Note that it's the interviewer who uses words like "hilarious", not Iannucci himself.
posted by rory at 5:15 AM on October 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Mark Kermode & Simon Mayo interviewed Iannucci about the film.

(Aside: I do like Mark Kermode’s film reviews, regardless of whether I agree with his opinions: he’s such a film enthusiast.)
posted by pharm at 12:40 PM on October 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Coming to the US March 9th apparently.
posted by pharm at 7:59 AM on January 18, 2018 [2 favorites]

Maybe the thread will pick up again in March? I've just seen this film*. It's excellent! Very very dark. Hard to laugh, even though the jokes were rapid fire and extremely snortable, because one knows the truth was worse. The killings and torture are as a rule not depicted graphically: mostly (not always) there are sound effects and the camera is looking away. Without humour it would have been a gruelling watch, with humour my heart was in my mouth through the last two thirds of the film.

As someone who grew up in the 60s I'd picked up from contemporary news coverage that Khrushchev was a crude buffoon. The film supplies some background. The filmmakers did a great job of showing the decisiveness needed and the pent-up rage and hatred that surfaces during the denouement. It was utterly convincing, not least because there's more recent video evidence of similar with other failing or ending political systems. At this point the camera is very clear what is happening. Audience feels relief.

*Saw it was on as a one-off today; went down to get a ticket and found there's an older person's film club showing a different film every Thursday afternoon at a discount. So yay! Harrowed, relieved and entertained all for £3.99, bargain.
posted by glasseyes at 8:54 AM on February 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh my god I just discovered that price is supposed to include a cup of tea and a biscuit!!! I almost feel cheated.
posted by glasseyes at 9:36 AM on February 8, 2018 [5 favorites]

Somewhat tangential to Fanfare, but perhaps of interest. If you've been wondering how the movie has been received in Russia, well, it's banned there. A cinema in Moscow attempted to show it anyway, and the police raided them. Fortunately, the results were somewhat different than the last time Moscow police raided a cinema.

Putin's propaganda puppets have been all over Reddit "explaining" that the movie is offensive for "trivialising" Stalin's crimes and definitely not at all because Putin is a hardline Stalinist who traded the trappings of Communism for crony capitalism.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:21 AM on February 8, 2018 [5 favorites]

This painting of Zhukov in his greatcoat seems to have inspired a sight gag in the film.
posted by glasseyes at 1:00 PM on February 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

Hank and Malenkov both have scenes with a corset- co-incidence or in-joke?

I have to believe that it was intentional! Someone can maybe dig out the transcript of the old Larry Sanders episode, but the lines and the delivery were to my memory almost identical. And indeed, that character of Malenkov is basically "Hank Kingsley when Larry is sick and he gets his chance to be in charge". From reading a few backgrounders on Malenkov it seems like that is not far off the actual mark, such that his casting and Kingsleyesque performance must be part of the joke.

(light spoiler)

My other favourite moment is the crew leaving Stalin's movie night with Malenkov getting ribbed for his gaffe about Polnikov... Beria and the others mocking him like schoolboys "...I like Trotsky, what happened to him" and "I miss the Czar"... holy shit this is comedy gold.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:59 PM on February 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

Aha, in the above Iannuci interview we get it direct from the horse's mouth:

“And Jeffrey Tambor,” he continues: “The Larry Sanders Show was a huge influence on me. His character, Hank, was one of those characters who was close to power, but didn’t really have any power, which I suppose characterises things like Veep and Alan Partridge.”
posted by Meatbomb at 10:45 PM on February 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Rewatched this the other night - it certainly bears repeat viewing. Simon Russell Beale's Beria just gets more horrific each time, each little grace note in the performance grows in significance on each encounter in a 'how did I miss that?' way.

Bit surprised there's been nothing on the thread after the film opened in the US and the DVD/BR/streaming pipes turned on.
posted by Devonian at 5:42 AM on March 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

Saw this last night in a small, but happily packed, cinema. The audience reaction was really interesting; I thought it was funny, but the fear from the first scene onward kept me from laughing too hard at most of it (until "I miss the Czar" at least). There were a couple of women behind us that obviously found it *hilarious* and were cackling loudly at the slightest hint of a joke, though even they got a bit subdued during the clearing-out of Stalin's mansion when they realised what the background gunshots signified.

Stalin's characterisation hasn't had much attention in this thread, but I thought it was perfect. The cockney accent making him sound like one of the Krays tapped straight into a long line of British gangster movies; his good-natured horror felt a lot like Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast to me. If you were seeing a subtitled or dubbed version (eg in Russian) would you miss a lot of that context?
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 7:26 AM on March 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

I assume that a dubbed Russian version would just use his natural Georgian accent, which already (apparently) sounds funny to Russian ears. But I also don't know if they even bothered with a Russian dub, given the movie was banned there. None of the articles I read about the Moscow theatre shutdown have given any details about whether the movie was subbed or dubbed. ("How was the play, Mrs Lincoln?")
posted by tobascodagama at 12:51 PM on March 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

I saw this movie yesterday, and I thought it was very funny, and *very* dark. I love the way Iannucci portrays people in precarious positions, and there really can't be anything more precarious than being a member of Stalin's inner circle.
posted by graventy at 3:42 PM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

I saw this last night, before I watched the latest episode of The Americans. It was darkly funny. There's a tension between the comedy and the grim subject matter, but it works, because it makes the evil of Stalinism look banal and farcical without at all whitewashing how destructive it is... and, as we've seen with the Cheeto administration, that's exactly how evil can play out.
posted by orange swan at 10:53 AM on April 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

Showed up in Redbox, been waiting for it. Seesawing between hilarity and terror feels very appropriate.

Watching Beria make The Mistake (basically, threatening the Central Committee) and seeing him realize that he can't threaten, bluff or cajoe his way out at the end... you don't feel bad for the guy.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:27 PM on June 22, 2018

Finally saw Death of Stalin -- it's easily one of the most entertaining films of the year, for me. Very funny. Buscemi was phenomenal. He's kind of overshadowed my understanding of Krushchev -- was he really such a politician? But also, wouldn't he have to be?

It was...nice, and complicated, to see Beria get nailed for the sexual assault, even though it was clearly a matter of piling on because they wanted to get rid of him for other reasons. I'm really fixated on the uncertainty of the anti-Beria push. I mean, I knew Khrushchev "won" because history, but the film did a good job of showing how haphazard and risky everything was. Maybe no one liked Beria or Stalin, but everyone was afraid of them, and most weren't inclined to stand in their way.

Except Zhukov, whew. I was concerned that my die-hard crush on Jason Isaacs would continue to manifest with deeply evil characters. In the film, at least, Zhukov was pretty solid.*

*I'm aware the Soviet occupation of postwar Berlin was terrible and rapey. But as depicted in the film, Zhukov wasn't a bad dude! After mirror!Isaacs and Lucius Malfoy, I'll take it.
posted by grandiloquiet at 8:51 PM on July 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed this. The actors were all excellent in their roles. The comedy wasn't laugh-out-loud for the most part, and often very dark, but the whole thing lead to a lot of Wikipedia research to find out about the real life events which was interesting. I liked the choice to have everyone use their normal (or at least not fake Russian) accents, and that helped remind me of the "behind the scenes political chaos" of The Thick Of It.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:30 AM on February 20, 2019 [1 favorite]

Long term fan of Armando Iannucci et al, yet only just watched this (popped up on UK NetFlix) and it was absolutely great. Definitely one you need to be in the mood for as the humour is black as anything in parts. The cast and performances were excellent, whoever thought of Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev was inspired as his presence emphasises that kind of Mob feel to the situation even whilst playing it straight all the way. Particularly loved the delivery and presence of the actor playing Beria, so had to look him up, Simon Russell Beale who I ought to have known from playing Falstaff in the BBC's Hollow Crown Shakespeare plays alongside Tom Hiddleston (need to rewatch them sometime).

While wiki-ing I picked up on the fact that the film was actually an adaptation of a French graphic novel. Definitely gonna be That Guy and routinely name it in my Top Ten Comic Book Movies in future.

OK, skipping back to the top to read everyone else's comments on it!
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 9:20 PM on February 27, 2020

Interview in The Guardian with Jason Isaacs on his role in The Death of Stalin; apparently his inspiration for the portrayal of Zhukov was Brian Glover (an actor who readily conceded that he played blunt Yorkshiremen so often because he was one.)
As a fan of Glover and Kes both, I love that! Interview is a good read too.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 9:51 PM on February 27, 2020

Was digging around Wikipedia after watching this, and apparently by "reasons that are myriad and complex", he meant that it was forbidden to record the performances of Maria Yudina, the pianist.
posted by ckape at 7:11 PM on May 31, 2020 [1 favorite]

This was on SBS in Australia the other week and I've re-watched it twice on their streaming service. I think it's only available til the end of February though so get in quick.
posted by harriet vane at 12:36 AM on February 4, 2021

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