Sunday, April 22, 2018


Radio Moscow, 1953. Historical figure, pianist Maria Yudina plays a Mozart concerto with an orchestra before a studio audience. The control room phone rings and the producer answers it. He is told to call back on a particular number in seventeen seconds. He fumbles the number, falling apart in front of the sound engineer. The caller was Stalin. The producer calls back at the right interval and is told to send the Secretary of All the Russias a recording of the performance. Of course, of course. Then, after hanging up, he asks if they did record the performance. A shake of the head. Right! we have to do it again. Stop everyone from leaving. Get the orchestra back. The Great Leader and Teacher wants a recording. And so they make one, waking a substitute conductor (who thinks it's the secret service) and grabbing passers by from the streets to make up the audience that got away.

This tale has appeared enough to be either mythology or cold, hard truth. I first read it in the discredited autobiography of Shostakovich, Testimony. The daily life of a Soviet citizen during the terror of Stalin involved a lot of what George Orwell had already called doublethink. Stalin got something that he asked for but was not exactly what he wanted. If he'd known he might equally have Gulaged the lot of them or let them stew as he smirked at their panic. Even the wavering truth value of the anecdote helps: it works whether it's fact or fiction. That is what we are in for with this film and it's both a strength and a weakness.

Stalin collapses in his office and is not checked by the sentries placed outside because their orders are only to keep others out. He is discovered by the only person allowed in (the maid with breakfast) and the rollcall of Party lights brings the quorum of the Central Committee to the room. We see political  relationships accelerate and know that we will have to follow some dangerous conversations, slips of the tongue, desperate saves, disasters of overreaching and so on. The old man is gone and the mess he left will need cleaning, so much cleaning that the carpet where he walked will be bleached to the floorboards.

If you are familiar with at least some of director/adaptor Armando Ianucci's work you'll know his strengths as a political satirist. And if you know the work you might be expecting a series of sharpshooting bullseyes drawing a lot of knowing laughter. That doesn't happen and at first it seems awkward but there's a scheme at work and it lets us settle in. At the start we seem expected to find the wisecracks of the political heavies funny but we notice that the violence under each jibe and wink is translatable as horrifying action. The NKVD headquarters clamour with pistol shots and fresh corpses tumble down staircases as a backdrop to conversations, feeling as much like street theatre as historical terror and there's a point to it. If the violence is too amped it bruises the comedy and if the comedy is too sharp it will diminish the effect of the violence. So both need to be reined in and are.

There's a scene in Life of Brian where Pontius Pilate is forced to threaten his soldiers with severe punishment when they keep laughing at his lisp. The tension is ramped when a joke name is revealed to be the real name of one of Pilate's friends. Pilate hones in on each guard who bites his lip or twists his mouth to keep from laughing and getting thrown in with the gladiators. It's a perfectly realised moment of power reduced to absurdity. The Death of Stalin is almost all this and the only way it can sustain is by dropping the need for the audience to pay each line with a laugh, creating a broader absurdity only enriched by the earnestness of the dialogue. We are being beckoned by the film to nudge into the whispering scrums and sense the danger of each utterance.

You don't get to do this without a cast that can handle it and, boy do we get one. Steve Buscemi's Kruschev seems the calm rational centre until he reveals a mass of anxieties. Simon Russell Beale's NKVD head Berrier is all bluster and blokey but creepily sinister all at once. Jeffery Tambor's Malenkov is a thanklessly sympathetic drawing of the second in command that a tyrant might choose as he would never pose a real threat but when power is handed him he will slowly disintegrate. His constant nerves delivered with each command make him both painful and funny to watch. Jason Isaacs bursts in as Marshall Zhukov, a laddish monster with a Yorkshire lilt. That's another thing: thank the Lord Harry they went with the actors' own accents rather than impose a kind of Rosseeyan splotz on everyone. This was done as well in the 70s tv movie Red Monarch where Stalin sounded Irish, Berrier Cockney etc. The dialogue isn't in Russian so instead of going halfway why not overlay an anglophone range. Kruschev's  wisecracking suits Steve Buscemi's New York sting to a T. If anyone sticks out the wrong way it is Michael Palin (who, incidentally, played Pilate in Life of Brian) as Molotov but this is largely due to the dialogue in which he is given Pythonesque lines. Perhaps I'm projecting that but it really did feel that way and put his character out of sorts with the others in a film that depends on the strength of its ensembles. 

Why Stalin? Well, if you want to look at what happens when an autocrat goes you're best off choosing one who didn't die in extreme crisis like Hitler or Mussolini as they were replaced by conquering armies. They could've gone for Franco or Peron but, really, they don't come much more intriguing that Stalin whose command encompassed the boundlessness of the USSR who was both hero to and tormentor of his people and whose tight paranoia left the question of his succession terrifyingly difficult. Also, his story is that of a culture that commanded its own reality, whose alternative facts were dogma until circumstance reversed them. And it's not just the current U.S. presidency. This film has been banned in Putin's Russia. See what I mean? It's funny but you're not laughing.

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