During The Death of Stalin’s set-up, members of the Soviet central committee take turns to unwittingly kneel in the piss of their paralysed dictator. Writer & director Armando Iannucci presents this as an inadvertently ceremonial act, like a servant lying their cloak over a puddle for their master to walk across. The Death of Stalin is woven with similarly splendid scenes like this which combine to make its history/politics slamming satire an unceasingly hilarious masterpiece, laced with the air of a time-honoured comedy classic.
An imposing red opening credits sequence, like being escorted at gun point through a Trotskyist brothel, bleeds into Moscow 1953. We then reconvene behind the scenes of a Radio Moscow recording of a classical Mozart concerto, where characters pontificate in panic ahead of a phone call with the Premier. The ingenious set-up has a strong enough premise to make a great feature in itself but is merely an hors d’oeuvre for the story to follow. The plot buds into a calamity of slapstick gaffes with tyrannical buffoons, political faux pas’ and totalitarian flapping at a time of unrest.
Iannucci’s script, co-written with Ian Martin, David Schneider and Peter Fellows, is based on a series of comic books by Fabein Nury and Thierry Robin. But it isn’t strictly a political/historical comedy in the sense that viewers’ would need to know about Stalin, his policies or the Soviet Union of the time, in order to appreciate it. The screenplay isn’t loaded with the type of plot-stopping exposition that could lobotomise the average Paul Blart: Mall Cop fan. Nor is it stricken with inert (Adam) Sandleresque “comedy” to send Stalin aficionados and Eisenstein enthusiasts scurrying to the bathroom in a bionic vomiting frenzy.
The comedy mostly derives from situations everyone can relate to i.e. character defects leaking out and causing public conflabs. These moments have been perfectly crafted and deployed thanks to the exceptional performances, Iannucci’s dexterity and his portrayal of political figures as either tits, gits or unscholarly slobs. Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) and co are (here) ham-fisted nincompoops who womble through soirees, flaunting medals and stripes like peacocks whoring garish wing spans or pigeons parading fluffed up plumes to impress a passing bird.
Iannucci’s cast, characters and comedy rouse Robert Altman and Christopher Guest. His dialogue whips Woody Allen with the DNA of Ealing and the surrealist humour he fashioned with Chris Morris back in the days of On The Hour. TDOS’s incredible cast/central committee comprises Richard Brake, Rupert Friend, Steve Buscemi, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Paddy Considine, Olga Kurylenko and Jason Issacs as Georgy Zhukov (incredible) amongst others, but it is Paul Whitehouse as Anastas Mikoyan, muttering: “Blood ‘ell I’m knackered. It’s been a busy old week,” while watching corpses crackle on a bonfire which makes for the most inappropriately hilarious, albeit brief, moment. Palin and Buscemi bickering while trying to fix a toilet is also worth the admission price.
Iannucci has spent most of his career mocking those who misuse power, pointing out politicians who parody themselves or revealing revered figures to be far too tragically inept for their roles. In our age of real life self-mocking, opinionated hogwash, the surrealist/ satirist has, with The Death of Stalin, once again nailed it. Simmering at the level of subtext, his second feature probably alludes to a lot more than one can grasp in one sitting but it’s the vibrant, pain inducing jesting that ultimately resounds. Iannucci constantly turns bad politics into comedy gold for our viewing pleasure and we should probably kneel in his piss and thank him for this, especially during this, our latest, politically shaky age.