You might not think that the death of the Russian dictator Joseph Stalin would be fertile ground for comedy, but director Armando Iannucci and his co-screenwriter David Schneider have found a way to make the occasion hilarious for most of the way.
The key to their comic coup is portraying the infighting after Stalin’s demise to grab power, combined with the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, which might come back to haunt an official if someone he slurred were to become the new top dog. The challenge of getting the right cast has been met with often uproarious results.
The comedy is eerie when Stalin suddenly dies in 1953. There is initial humor in the planning of his funeral, and it doesn’t take long for the manipulations and back-stabbing to begin. The most amusing casting is that of Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev. With his tough-guy American accent, Buscemi is consistently funny in a role one would never think he would play.
You can get an idea of how droll the film is by surveying other cast members—Jeffrey Tamboor as Malenkov, Michael Palin as Molotov, Jason Isaacs as Zhukov, and Simon Russell Beale as the obnoxious Beria, the secret police chief who we know from history wound up executed himself after dispatching so many others during years of terror. The film handles the Beria episode with comic comeuppance.
Much of the humor lies in the backroom discussions and maneuvers, directed with abundant dark comedy. If the director intended the film as a more universal example of corruption beyond Russia, the viewer has plenty to think about.
Although most of the dialogue is in English with a bevy of different accents, the aura is Russian as a result of the production design and the overall look of the film. “The Death of Stalin” emerges as superb political satire. An IFC Films release. Reviewed October 7. 2017.