Laughter in the dark: ‘The Death of Stalin’ turns grim history into comedy

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The Death of Stalin

FilmScene — opens Friday, April 20

Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev and Jason Isaacs as Georgy Zhukov in “The Death of Stalin” (2017)

“Been a busy ol’ week,” Lazar Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley) says to his fellow members the Soviet Union’s ruling Central Committee near the end of The Death of Stalin. The week started with the titular death of the man who ruled the USSR for three decades and ended with the summary execution of one of his most likely successors. Kaganovich isn’t trying to be funny — he’s just a small-minded man whining about a tough week at work. And that’s why it’s funny.

Mining the little banalities behind big public events for absurdist humor is how Armando Iannucci built his reputation as the creator of some of the sharpest political satires on television, with The Thick of It in England and Veep in the U.S. And unlike a lot of what gets called political satire, Iannucci’s work is genuinely funny.

Iannucci directed and co-wrote The Death of Stalin, basing it on a comic book of the same name. Both the comic and the movie take liberties with the historical record — there was almost a year between the two deaths mentioned above, not a week — but the movie does get the underlying dynamics of the events right.

The men who thrived during Josef Stalin’s reign of terror, which started even before he achieved absolute power in 1924 and lasted until his death in 1953, were brutal to everyone beneath them, but completely submissive to Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin). Iannucci does an excellent job showing the different ways the members of the dictator’s inner circle survived the ever-changing set of demands they had to satisfy.

For example, Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), the foreign minister, became a self-deluding true believer, while Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), responsible for agricultural production, debased himself as a somewhat clownish yes man. Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the oily and terrifying head of the secret police, quietly plotted behind a phony smile. With the sole exception of Georgy Zhukov, the commander of the Red Army and the USSR’s greatest war hero (played with booming bravado by Jason Isaacs), the men around Stalin were petty and juvenile. Those are just the sort of characters Iannucci handles like a virtuoso.

Stalin was one of the bloodiest tyrants of the 20th century, an era that had no shortage of bloody tyrants, so it’s only natural to wonder whether his final days, filled with murderous paranoia, and the bureaucratic struggle to seize power following his death are really fitting material for a comedy. The Death of Stalin follows the path cut by Mel Brooks, whose classic comedy The Producers, which revolves around a musical about Hitler, hit movie theaters just 22 years after the end of World War II.

Brooks has said that to make his film artistically and socially responsible, he made sure all the laughs came at the expense of the Nazis, and their victims were never the butt of any of the jokes. Iannucci deftly balances the ridiculous banality of the men in power with hints and glimpses of the terror and suffering they caused.

Iannucci also tells his story so clearly that movie-goers who’ve never heard of the NKVD (the acronym for the Soviet secret police of that era) won’t have any trouble following the action. The script is filled with absurd humor that will be familiar to anyone who has watched Veep, but the shadow of the gulag gives it a Kafkaesque tint. The acting is uniformly excellent.

On his own deathbed in 1959, the actor Edmund Gwenn (famous for playing Santa in Miracle on 34th Street), reportedly said, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” With The Death of Stalin, Armando Iannucci has pulled off an impressive feat of hard work.

The Death of Stalin is playing at FilmScene through Thursday, April 26.

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