‘The Death of Stalin’ (2017) and Humor Driven by Fear

History tends to regard authoritarians with a mythic allure. Their vague legacies erode through the generations until they’re forgotten in the endless well of time. Even more overlooked are the equally culpable characters that plotted and schemed their way into the innermost circles of tyranny. That is not the case in Armando Iannucci’s 2017 political satire The Death of Stalin, which understands that the fear and anxiety ingrained in an oppressed society is the greatest asset to the film’s black humor. 

The Death of Stalin examines the political fallout within the Soviet government following the sudden death of the notorious General Secretary Joseph Stalin. With the country now without a leader, factionalism quickly develops among the national council with Secretary Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) warring with the diabolical head of the secret police, Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) for influence over the clueless new General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor). 

Few directors have the ability to channel real-life controversial events into meaningful, critical art the way Iannucci does. His resume starts from his time in television as the creator, writer and director of the BBC original The Thick of It, a show that satirized the operations of British government. He then followed up the show with his 2009 directorial feature debut In The Loop, a film that depicts British and American government officials either advocating for or fighting against the proposal of invading Iraq. Iannucci has also directed episodes of the satirical HBO original series Veep, another television show that satirizes the inner-workings of government, this time in America. All of these works are seeping with dark humor and confront the complexities of language, and how the addition or subtraction of a word or two can steer a conversation into the ugly. Iannucci has made a career off of razor-sharp retorts and witty dialogue, showing the ability to wade through wordy politic-speak to expose the agenda-driven core of the officials in the highest level of government. 

The Death of Stalin is as terrifying as it is hilarious. Every stutter, every move, every insult is molded by fear. It is not a historically accurate film, as Iannucci himself has acknowledged; he is more interested in capturing the “low-level anxiety,” of a populace that has to be wary of every action they take. Some of the funnier moments in the film come from outside the council, among citizens and guards, as illustrated in the opening of the film at Radio Moscow. The station director (Paddy Considine) takes a call from Stalin himself, demanding the director call back in 17 minutes. But the director is so nervous, he starts to question himself. Was it 17 minutes from when he was told to call or when the call ended? And when Stalin gave him the number to call him back on, did it end with a nine as in fine? Or five as in hive? These questions would be trivial if they literally didn’t mean the difference between life and death. 

A politician dressed in all white mocks his counterparts as he walks away.
Image courtesy of Quad Productions

The most expendable demographic in the film are the guards and members of Beria’s secret police. They rule with impunity when around civilians but are just as vulnerable when around each other. Guards are constantly ordered to kill one another, oftentimes right after killing another officer. Even the guards that stand outside Stalin’s room are murdered as the entire building is cleared out after Stalin dies. These murders are often done off-screen or in wide shots, so this gives the audience a chance to connect with the dark humor of the film rather than focus on the grisliness of it. 

While the anxiety of the Soviet population is of high thematic importance, the film focuses on the couriers of this fear. The national council are a group that both lives off of fear and lives in it. In the first act of the film, the dinner scene with Stalin and his council illustrates that dread comes from the top-down in countries ruled by authoritarianism. The atmosphere is light and filled with laughter as Stalin and his council listen to Khrushchev’s exaggerated war stories. During his storytelling, he mentions an old, probably deceased, comrade named Polnikov. Malenkov, seemingly incapable of reading a room, asks with genuine curiosity what became of Polnikov. The room falls to an awkward hush. Stalin’s jubilant mood instantly sours. He barks, “You want to know what happened to Polnikov? You want to go there?” Everyone nervously waits. 

Then Beria spares everyone by squeezing a tomato in Khrushchev’s pocket. The warm atmosphere is restored, with Malenkov licking his wounds. Just like how the citizens of Moscow must be careful of what they say about their government, the cult of personality that surrounds Stalin must laugh at every stupid joke the dictator spouts and be wary of what or who is mentioned in his presence. This bolsters the notion that image is everything for authoritarianism. Tools like propaganda and disinformation legitimize whatever reality a government wants to implement and anyone that subverts this reality is considered a threat. Whoever Polnikov was, Stalin viewed him as an enemy and a threat to his constructed reality. To bring his name up is to indirectly challenge Stalin’s idea of a loyal cabinet. This gives way to hilariously dark lines like Malenkov’s when he’s later pressed about mentioning Polnikov, “I can’t remember who’s alive and who isn’t!” 

There are echoes of Stalin’s manufactured reality even after he dies, namely when Khrushchev attempts to recruit fellow councilmember Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) to his cause against Beria. In the film, it’s thought that Molotov’s wife had been executed by Stalin’s regime, deemed by the deceased general secretary to be an enemy of the state; a move that Molotov approved of despite no evidence beyond Stalin’s word. In reality, Beria had imprisoned her and had been saving her reveal for an advantageous moment. Before Khrushchev can sell Molotov on his plan, Beria plays the role of hero and reunites the couple, temporarily thwarting Khrushchev’s plan. Although Molotov is ecstatic to have his wife back, he still insists that she was a criminal that deserved the punishment she received. Another example would be Stalin’s idiot alcoholic son Vasily (Rupert Friend), as he vehemently denies the occurrence of a plane crash that killed the country’s hockey team. His bodyguards are forced to play along because, again, challenging the “truth” means risking one’s life. 

A group of male politicians crowd over a dead body.
Image courtesy of Quad Productions

In the context of the film, appearances come down to survival. Fear demands that the characters construct a hardened image of themselves so that they fit in and maintain their power. Iannucci flips this masculine, self-serving image on its head to reveal the boyishness at the core of authoritarianism through the execution of slow-motion and score. The characters are introduced in slow-motion, titles superimposed on the screen to name the character and their government positions, with a score that swells into the epic; except the image does not corroborate the themes these aspects translate. Khrushchev and Beria are chest-bumping each other like they’ve just won a soccer game when the audience learns their names. Molotov waves goodbye with an ear-to-ear grin to his fellow councilmembers like the devout comrade he is, unaware of his entry on one of Stalin’s hit-lists. Their goofiness juxtaposes the slow-motion and score, and informs the audience upon meeting the characters that these men do not live up to the historical hype that surrounds them.

The Death of Stalin is more dramatic than Iannucci’s aforementioned works. The most in-your-face murder in the film is when Beria is executed by Khrushchev and the Soviet army, a scene where Beale flexes his stage-acting muscles and brings an entirely different level of intensity to the film. Despite this, it’s a film that always hovers around its comedic foundation. Humor is dotted even in its most serious moments, whether it be the anxiety of a coup giving Molotov the runs, the council awkwardly choreographing with one another to argue about who invited the bishops to Stalin’s funeral, or the accurate gross reaction of seeing Stalin’s head split open during his autopsy. Leadership is most important during times of crisis. The film takes crisis and illustrates what happens when “leadership” chooses to exploit these pivotal times for personal gain rather than for common good. 

That’s ultimately what’s at stake in The Death of Stalin. It’s about this cult of personality that fights for the right to bend reality to whatever they wish it to be, with a population held hostage by the anxiety that emanates from unstable, self-centered government. One could look to the film’s official poster, two shadowy figures fighting over Stalin’s trademark mustache, as further evidence of this. The film ends with Khrushchev at a concerto, crowned the new General Secretary. Only a few rows behind Khrushchev is his future successor, Leonid Brezhnev, eyeing him, signifying the endless game of musical chairs for power within authoritarianism. 

Header image courtesy of Quad Productions