The Death of Stalin (2017)


It is I, Robert Mueller, and I have come to the White House to depose Trump and restore Hillary Clinton to her rightful place in the Oval Office.

For an American, or any westerner, honestly confronting the legacy of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin can be especially difficult, or even impossible. On one hand, Stalin was a tyrant and a war criminal, an authoritarian who forever branded the idea of socialism with state repression. On the other hand, he’s a convenient scapegoat for ruling class apologists for capitalism and western imperialism, well paid propagandists who ignore, or even whitewash, their own demonic state criminals  in favor of pointing the finger at Russia or China. Any American politician who praised Stalin, or even Lenin, would find his career over the next day, but they all gush over Winston Churchill, Henry Kissinger, and the rapist slave owners who founded the American republic. Armando Iannucci, the director of The Death of Stalin, is one of these hypocritical western, ruling class propagandists.

That being said, The Death of Stalin is an entertaining film, but only if you keep in mind one thing. It’s not really about Stalin or the Soviet Union, and to be honest, it doesn’t even pretend to be. It’s basically an extended Monty Python skit about a grotesque, incompetent, ruling elite jockeying for power after the death of their overpowering father figure. Think of it as The Sopranos, only with British actors cosplaying as Russians instead of Italian Americans from New Jersey. Michael Palin plays Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet diplomat who negotiated the “Hitler Stalin pact.” He’s an incompetent bumbling masochist on the verge of senility. Simon Russell Beale, who’s a dead ringer for Dick Cheney, plays Lavrentiy Beria, the head of Stalin’s secret police, and a serial rapist. Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s chief of staff, is played by Jeffrey Tambor. He looks a bit like The Joker gone puffy and middle-aged. Andrea Riseborough plays Stalin’s daughter. She’s anxious and generally annoying. Rupert Friend plays Stalin’s drunken, half-insane son, who’s last seen threatening Zhou Enlai, played by an actor named David Wong. Last but not least, speaking of New Jersey Italians, Steve Buscemi plays Nikita Khrushchev. There’s not much to be said about his performance other than that he’s the last actor on earth I had expected to see cast in the part, and that he looks tired, and old. Just about the only thing that could have saved his performance is if Iannucci had paid homage to Fargo and had Beria, or some other Soviet thug, put him through a woodchipper. Obviously, since Khrushchev lived to become the premier of the Soviet Union, that couldn’t happen.

If the Death of Stalin has a hero, it’s probably Georgy Zhukov, played by the Liverpool born Jason Isaacs. That Zhukov, who commanded the Soviet Army at Stalingrad, actually was a hero, the man who deserves more credit for defeating Hitler than the mediocre Eisenhower or the bumbling incompetent Churchill, is besides the point. Zhukov really isn’t Zhukov. He’s just another Englishman. Unlike the rest of the cast, however, who are all presented as lecherous, grotesque, doddering old men – I honestly left the movie genuinely concerned that perhaps Michael Palin is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s — Isaacs comes off as youthful, or at least vigorously middle aged. It’s actually the most hilariously ironic thing about The Death of Stalin. Armando Iannucci, in the end, is just another Anglo American liberal who turns to jelly in the presence of a troop, any troop, even a commie general like Zhukov. Iannucci’s gone through all the trouble of making a purportedly “anti-authoritarian” movie and all he really wants in the end is a military coup. The Death of Stalin would be the perfect date movie for Rachel Maddow and Louise Mensch.

To be fair, the scene where a terrified radio producer has to re-stage a concert because Stalin demanded a recording that hadn’t been made is fucking hilarious and well worth sitting through 90 minutes of hideous old westerners pretending to hideous old Russians to see.

4 thoughts on “The Death of Stalin (2017)”

  1. I take it you’re not familiar with Iannucci’s “The Thick of It,” “In the Loop” or “Veep,” which thematically are very similar to “The Death of Stalin,” so he’s targeted the “grotesque, incompetent ruling elite” of the U.S. and UK for a while now. I highly doubt you’ll still have the impression that Iannucci (who is Italian-Scottish, not Italian-American) is a propagandist or even admires the political elite in any way.

    I’m not sure why you’re surprised the actors in this movie weren’t 30-somethings. The real-life people (and the actors do look more or less like them) were in their late 50s and older, and probably prematurely aged by the lifestyle, alcohol abuse, and constant fear and backstabbing. Plus, Jason Isaacs is around the age Zhukov was when he arrested Beria. As far as I know, Michael Palin is doing just fine; it’s Terry Jones who’s had serious health problems lately.

    1. I’m not familiar with Ianucci’s other work. Apparently he uses a very similar theme in In the Loop as he does in The Death of Stalin. The military will save us.

      The second half of In the Loop, which satirized the British government’s complicity in the Bush administration’s drive to war in Iraq, is very weak, celebrating as it does an alliance between “progressives,” a gruff US Army general and an inexplicably liberal Deputy Secretary of State.

      I doubt he’d make a similar film about the Dulles Brothers and the CIA (and their Nazi war criminal proteges). But I’d go see it.

      1. That’s a strange takeaway since the deputy and the general are only united by their opposition (or skepticism) of the war, and they still lose to the warmongers.

        1. That would certainly be an alliance, and one I remember the Democrats indulging in in 2003. They’d do nothing while the generals stopped Bush from invading Iraq. But it was a fantasy. Nobody in the Pentagon was genuinely opposed to going into Iraq. And I don’t think anybody should count on it this time as Trump is banging the drum for a war with Iran. Generals love wars. They get lots of funding and all sorts of new toys and it works the same in Russia and the USA.

          Zhukov is an interesting figure. He certainly did more to defeat Hitler than anybody. But he was arguably a war criminal since he did nothing to stop his army from committing atrocities against German civilians in 1945. His alliance with Khrushchev against Beria seems one of convenience. He was in the wilderness in 1953 because of all the looting he did for his own personal benefit. This was his chance to rehabilitate himself.

          Well he finally issued orders that were pretty much standard in the Anglo American armies.

          “The very fact of actually knowing exactly where every [British] soldier was and the sergeants and the corporals keeping such tight control meant that there was very little chance of soldiers getting out of control. And the striking thing is that when [Marshal Georgi] Zhukov — again in August, because the rape and looting was still carrying on in Berlin past the victory — Zhukov imposed new orders to prevent all of this still continuing. His instructions are in fact — reading them from a Western military point of view — astonishing. These ‘new measures,’ as they are called, would be absolutely basic for any Western army for their troops in barracks in their hometown, let alone on operations or exercise in a foreign country.”

          I just find it interesting that Ianucci makes Beria a sexual predator but turns Zhukov into a swaggering masculine hero restoring order to Moscow. It’s also interesting that he casts Gandolfini as the general in In the Loop, Tony Soprano himself.

          All in all I think the WSWS review gets it right. It’s an amusing movie at times but woefully shallow and trivial for the subject matter.

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