Okay, so I’ve never really watched the show Survivor, but the catchphrase is embedded in my brain from years of commercials: “Outwit, outlast, outplay.” If one were to devise a similar catchphrase for the historical comedy film The Death of Stalin, it would probably be “Out-scheme, out-mourn, outlive”. . . .
The premise of this movie is simple enough. When Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin dies, his sycophantic underlings scramble to fill the power vacuum, a task that’s easier said than done when they’re all plotting against each other. After years of having to make nice with each other–to survive both politically and literally–the proverbial gloves are off. With “friends” like these, who needs enemies?
I’ve been wanting to watch this movie for several months. I always found Russian/Soviet history fascinating, and I like a lot of the actors in this movie. I also have been accused of having a pretty dark sense of humor, so I was definitely intrigued by this black comedy.
The movie ended up being even funnier than I expected, though I imagine it very easily could have been botched, given the sensitivity of the subject matter. I mean, it’s not every day you see a comedy about dictators and mass murder. Still, I laughed my head off the whole way through and enjoyed it so much that I rewatched it the following evening.
That’s not to say that it is a feel-good movie. If anything, I frequently felt like a terrible person for laughing at the vicious antics of Stalin’s inner circle. Before watching the movie, I’d wondered if the filmmakers would soften the characters in the name of comedy, but nope, they preserved their awfulness intact. From the sadistic secret police chief Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale, Penny Dreadful) to the flailingly incompetent deputy Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor, Arrested Development) to the shrewd Moscow party boss Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi, Fargo, Boardwalk Empire), who masks his ambitions and scheming under a clownish persona, none of these men are good guys.
I was also pleasantly surprised in general with the historical accuracy of the movie. That’s not to say that it rivals a documentary for factualness, but as far as movies go (and especially comedies), they got a lot more right than wrong about life in Stalinist Russia. And that’s everything from Stalin’s penchant for Westerns to the pervading climate of fear. Perversely, a lot of the humor comes from the atmosphere of fear, an ingrained sense of panic that motivates Stalin’s underlings to be outrageously obsequious yes men to his face and dramatically mourn his death in public (despite their private feelings) but still to be terrified of making a simple decision, like calling a doctor to tend to their incapacitated leader, lest it come back to haunt them.
It helps that the cast is comprised of such a strong group of performers. In addition to the folks mentioned earlier, Michael Palin (of Monty Python fame) pops up as Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and Jason Isaacs (best known for his villain roles in The Patriot, Harry Potter) as Marshal of the Red Army Georgy Zhukov. Everyone does an excellent job, but I though Isaacs stole the show with his bombastic, crass, blunt Zhukov. Unlike the rest of the main characters, Zhukov knows his position is more secure than the others–defeating the Nazis in WWII has its perks–and acts accordingly.
This movie is not for everyone. But if you are a history buff with a dark sense of humor–and a high tolerance for violence and vulgarity–definitely give this movie a try.
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Have you watched this movie? Do you like black comedies? What’s your favorite historical comedy? Tell us in the comments!