Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Goergy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Lazar Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley) and Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) in The Death of Stalin.

Courtesy of eOne Films

Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Goergy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Lazar Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley) and Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale) in The Death of Stalin.

April 8, 2018

Should We Laugh at The Death of Stalin?

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I’d say we all enjoy political comedy now and then. Whether it’s making fun of Hillary Clinton dabbing or making fun of anything Donald Trump tweets, nothing feels as good as teasing those in power. So, when I first saw ads for The Death of Stalin, I was thrilled. It’s a British film based on the French comic La mort de Staline, and only recently opened here in the United States. The film has some weak points here and there, but manages to deliver plenty of laughs and has a good heart.

Directed by Armando Iannuci, The Death of Stalin opens in the Soviet Union, 1953; a nation in constant terror. Secret police raid neighborhoods picking up Stalin’s listed enemies to execute. The ruling Central Committee also lives in constant fear of Joseph Stalin, played by Adrian McLoughlin. His irrational whims and flights of fancy could prove fatal at any moment. One night, though, he suffers a brain hemorrhage, and ends up incapacitated. The Committee rushes to help, but tensions flare as they realize that Stalin will soon die. The race is on, then, for Khrushchev, Malnkov and Beria to secure the support of other Committee members and, by extension, control over the Soviet Union.

The heart of this plot works very well, especially in the play between a central trio of characters. First you have Beria, head of the secret police and played by Simon Russell Beale, who wishes to continue iron-fist rule of the nation. He ends up butting heads with the reformer Nikita Khrushchev, played by Steve Buscemi. Khrushchev wishes to freeze mass arrests and release some of the detained people, relaxing the grip that the state holds on the nation. Caught in the middle of their feud is Deputy Malenkov, played by Jeffrey Tambor. Malenkov is a rather weak-willed man, but his role as deputy means he’s acting head of the nation. That makes him a crucial power player. Their constant jockey for power makes for an excellent political thriller. Plus, the trio gets to deliver some of the film’s very best humor. Beale, Buscemi and Tambor make for great leads.

However, beyond the plot’s heart, there’s a lot of peripheral threads that I wish had tied in more. For example, shortly after Josef Stalin’s death, his children arrive. His son, played by Rupert Friend, immediately demands to be saluted and treated as the ruler. Later on, he demands to speak at his father’s funeral. I felt curious to see where this part of the story would go, but beyond what I described, nothing much happened.

There was also a character Maria, played by Olga Kurylenko, who had written a very angry note to Stalin that may have triggered his hemorrhage. Later in the movie, Beria draws a very distant link between her and Khrushchev that he threatens to use against Khruschev. Again, though, nothing comes from this. They are not bad plot threads, they just don’t have the impact needed to warrant their inclusion.

I also have to talk about the editing. The film has a high number of cuts between shots, even going from one shot to another that looks exactly the same. Sometimes this works, creating confusion during a chaotic scene. Other times, though, it’s very distracting. It could use a bit of toning down during quieter parts.

Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that the film is quite funny. Good lines, as well as fantastic visual humor, can be found throughout. One of my favorite gags involving a propaganda effort that goes horribly wrong had me laughing heartily in my seat. Of course, this might raise a question for some: how appropriate is it to laugh in the context of the Soviet Union and the Stalinist terrors? I’d argue that a lot of the humor is warranted, and for a very important reason.

The vast majority of humor targets the Central Committee. Every member of the committee is portrayed, to some degree or another, as an utter buffoon. They struggle to even get a doctor called upon finding Stalin’s body. They are also all reprehensible. Even Khrushchev, the closest thing the film has to a protagonist, isn’t afraid to sacrifice the lives of civilians for his political benefit. That makes it all the more fulfilling to see them become the butt of jokes.

The Death of Stalin reminds us that it’s so important to be able to laugh at our leaders. Humor demands humility; it comes in and knocks down pride and ego. It shows that they’re not great and mighty dictators, but human like anyone else on the planet. For some, that loss of power is the worst crime they can imagine. That’s why in authoritarian regimes, anyone who mocks officeholders faces punishment, even up to death.

The Death of Stalin has rough edges on its story, and the manic editing could calm down every now and then. However, it’s a great comedy that boasts an engaging plot which takes aim at one of the most infamous regimes in modern history. It’s a brilliant satire — and given that it remains banned in Russia and other satellite states, it might just be a needed one.

David Gouldthorpe is a senior in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at dgouldthourpe@cornellsun.com.