Face it — a serious movie depicting the moral rot of Soviet leadership in 1953 would be unbearable to watch. By the time Josef Stalin died, his regime had killed as many as 20 million people, including land-owning farmers, Politburo grandees, prominent generals and ethnic minorities.
So why not make a farce instead?
That is what we have here. “The Death of Stalin” observes top Russian officials playing the angles and angling over succession after Stalin suffers a stroke and then dies.
Weird as it sounds, the movie is hilarious.
It takes its story from a French graphic novel of the same name. The director, Armando Iannucci, is known for projects that cast a cynical eye on politicians, most recently in the HBO series “Veep.” He co-wrote a script that made the members of Stalin’s inner circle look ridiculous, each in his own way.
The action involves highly placed Soviet ministers who have presided over executions and other terrible acts but who are so concerned for their personal safety that they hesitate to speak until they know which way the political winds are blowing. All decisions, including whether to call a doctor to attend to the paralyzed Stalin, are made by unanimous committee votes. This black humor is the heart of the story.
The acting is excellent, and the cast includes these well-known performers:
— Comedian Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov, a vain and silly man who moves up from the Second Secretary to replace Stalin as First Secretary and is steamrollered within weeks by cannier political operators.
— British stage actor Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria, head of the notorious NKVD secret police; early in the movie he is instructed by Stalin to execute a man and his wife, who specifies that the man be shot first while his wife watches.
— Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khruschev, a frustrated politician who makes his wife keep notes on which of his jokes have drawn laughs from Stalin.
— Monty Python alum Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov, who is such a thorough yes-man that he puts up no fuss when his wife Polina is sent to prison, effectively for being a Jew.
— Jason Isaacs as war hero Georgy Zhukov, a pompous commander and buddy of Stalin who doesn’t mince his often intemperate remarks.
The whole thing is worth seeing, and possibly worth seeing twice.
The film opened last September in the UK, where it has been very popular. It was “dropped” in only four US theaters last weekend. Long-term prospects may be in question because the film rewards viewers who know at least a little history and because the dialogue is more literary than the usual American fare. On the other hand, skepticism about politicians runs pretty high here. We’ll see.