The Death of Stalin

A comedy about the death of one of history’s greatest mass murderers may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it tickled my funnybone.

The story is really about the absurdity of life in close contact with an unpredictable autocrat.  The wife of one of the characters, for example, dutifully records which of her husband’s jokes Stalin laughed at and which he did not.  But fawning sycophancy will get you only so far – just ask Thomas Cromwell.  Two of Stalin’s inner circle were, in fact, believed to have been “on the list” for liquidation at the time Stalin died.

Most of the seemingly unbelievable events in this film actually happened, although not (as in the film) all at the same time.  A radio station really did organize the repeat performance of a piano concerto after Stalin asked for a copy.  The original performance was live and hadn’t been recorded, but nobody wanted to tell Stalin that.  This incident occurred in 1944, not in 1953, but Stalin apparently did have the copy of the record on his nightstand when he died.

When Stalin had his stroke, it really did take nearly 2 days for doctors to be called in.  Stalin had issued standing orders that he must not be disturbed while he was sleeping, on pain of execution — who was going to disobey that order?  In the movie as in real life, Stalin had had most of his doctors arrested in 1952, which meant that his cabinet had to roust up new doctors to make an evaluation, most of whom were none too happy to be given this honor.  His associates really did have to pretend he would recover at the same time they were sizing each other up  for the succession.  The stuff involving Stalin’s incompetent alcoholic son is mostly true, too.  Despite, or perhaps because of, this historical fidelity, showing of this film has been banned in Russia.

The peformances are uniformly fine; Steve Buscemi (as the charming but ruthless Nikita Khrushchev), Simon Russel Beale (as the oily Beria) and Jason Isaacs (as the self-important but politically astute war hero Marshall Zhukov) are particular standouts.

The humor, though black, is never at the expense of Stalin’s victims.  And since Nikita Khrushchev and his “we will bury you” speech was the Big Bad Boogeyman of my childhood, I enjoyed the sendup.

Currently streaming on Amazon.

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