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This picaresque masterpiece deserves 5 stars. The 2 and 1 stars are incompetent or irrelevant and drag down the score. I've read histories of Stalin and of his death. As outrageous as this story seems, it is essentially true. The main points are accurate. The characters, from Khrushchev to Malenkov to Molotov to Beria, are accurate. As a group they were buffoons who, in order to survive, had for years played Stalin's buffoons to keep him amused. The acting is perfect, the settings are perfect, the dialog is in keeping with the documented profanity, vulgarity and ruthlessness of Stalin's circle. What we are seeing is the transition from Stalin's surrealistic reign of terror to relative sanity, and the transition is played as the next step from tragedy—comedy. Brilliant comedy.
One of the funniest historical satires in years, perhaps decades. When Stalin dies, the chess game of political leadership starts as a cast of first-rate American and British actors portray Stalin's inner circle. A brilliant expose on government in general and totalitarian forms in particular where fear, paranoia, and vanity seem to rule the day. What makes it even funnier is how rooted it is in reality.
WAIT! Before any of you write a review on this movie, see it twice, with subtitles. It's a movie you have to follow and think. It's not an easy watch. The characters flow together perfectly. The historic content, so interesting. Steve Buscemi a master of at first being on the outside, and slowly and methodically working his way to Premier. I have to say seeing Michael Palin, one of my all-time-favorite comedians, works in his "Monty" comedy in a subtle way, and I've been missing him. Actually everyone on the cast is great, I"ve always liked Jason Issacs, and I was happy to see him "deck" Stalin Jr. This is a funny movie, but you have to watch it twice or more to "get it". A fun tour of history for us history buffs!
Based on the French graphic novel "La mort de Staline" by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. Described as a political comedy satire, it's more absurdist horror IMHO. Covers the period from the night of Stalin's stroke to his funeral a week later. The main plot involves the power struggle among Stalin's despicable lackeys. The always wonderful Steve Buscemi gives coarse Moscow Party Head Khrushchev a surprising humanity. The brilliant Simon Russell Beale, often described as the greatest stage actor of his generation, gives a chilling portrayal as the thoroughly loathsome NKVD chief Beria. Jeffrey Tambor is marvelous as Stalin's initial successor, the tentative and indecisive Deputy General Secretary Malenkov. And I absolutely loved Jason Isaacs' portrayal as straightforward yet devious Field Marshal Zhukov. Director Armando Iannucci told all the actors to play it straight, so it's no so much laugh inducing but rather more "What the frell?????" inducing. Recommended, with caveats for language, violence, and sexual abuse of minors. (Yes, Lavrentiy Beria was an *absolute* monster!)
Directed by Armando Iannucci (Veep, The Thick of It) from a screenplay by Iannucci, David Schneider (Josh, Uncle Max), Ian Martin (Veep, The Thick of It) and Peter Fellows, based on the French comic book by Fabien Nury andThierry Robin, The Death of Stalin is a deft engaging blend of really dark comedy and fairly accurate recounted history, with great performances by an impressively gifted cast.
In March of 1953, Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) has been the dictator of the Soviet Union for almost thirty years. And everyone, no matter how high or low, lives in absolute terror of him. This is established in two scenes early on. The opening scene is at the Radio Moscow concert hall where pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) is performing Mozart, accompanied by a full orchestra. Just as the concert is ending, the station manager, Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) gets an unexpected call. From Stalin. Stalin was listening to the performance on the radio and wants a copy. Andreyev is immediately in a panic as they weren't recording the concert, but one _never_ says no to Stalin. He immediately stops everyone he can from leaving and hastily puts together a repeat performance, which he records and quickly hands to a waiting courier to take to Stalin.
At the same time, another scene shows Stalin having dinner with his inner circle: Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and others. At first it all seems rather jovial, but you quickly realize that all of the men at the table are scared to death of making a joke that Stalin doesn't find funny. Or worse, of mentioning the name of someone Stalin has had purged. This is emphasized later when Khrushchev gets home to his wife and immediately writes down notes of the evening's banter, noting what Stalin laughed at, what he didn't laugh at, and what distinctly annoyed him, all so he can know what's safe and what's not for the next time he's around the man.
And in the background while all of this is going on, squads of Beria's dreaded NKVD secret police and going around Moscow, rounding up the latest victims to end up on one of Stalin's "purge" lists. Remarkably, Iannucci manages to find just the right balance to bring out the black humor in the situation while at the same time not diminishing the inescapable fear that everyone under Stalin had to live with.
The performances are excellent. Steve Buscemi (Fargo, Boardwalk Empire) doesn't particularly look like Khrushchev but does an excellent job of bringing out the man's shrewdness, sarcasm and skill for survival. Jeffrey Tambor (Transparent, Arrested Development) is perfect as the diffident and perpetually vacillating Malenkov. Simon Russell Beale is deceptively chilling as the NKVD chief Beria, who's most scary when he's smiling, next to Stalin, the most feared man on the Politburo.
And one particular note: although he doesn't appear until later in the film, Jason Isaacs completely steals his every scene as General Georgy Zhukov, gleefully chewing the scenery to shreds as the legendary, larger-than-life Zhukov.
Highly, highly recommended for adeptly capturing what that time was like, for bringing out the truly dark comedy to be found there, and for a number of excellent performances by the highly talented cast.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on January 23, 2019
I had only the haziest knowledge of the events this film depicts. Googling them afterwards i found they'd taken place over several months rather than the few days of the film. This contraction of time works well. On the one hand it emphasises how unsafe and changeable the Soviet Union was during this period, on the other it helps to propel the comedy forward. It's a world of ceaseless manoeuvring, almost like an episode of Fawlty Towers on a grand scale and with a lot of bloodshed.
I found it interesting that the comedy only makes the cruelty more chilling. Before i watched the film i wondered if it would tend to trivialise the suffering and oppression. Not a bit of it. Apart from the deftness of the writing the success of the film must surely lie in the great performances by the likes of Simon Russell Beale (brilliant as Beria) and Steve Buscemi (Khrushchev). It was a stroke of genius to have the actors play the parts in non-Russian accents as it alerts the viewer to the fact that this is not a 'historical film'. It's also funny, I liked the way Khrushchev is an intense no-nonsense New Yorker up against the cultured 'English' Beria. I was quite taken too with Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) as a bluff Yorkshireman.
Recommended, especially if like me, you end up wanting to learn more about the history behind the story.
The only extras i recall are short interviews with key members of the cast and crew.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” JFK quaintly advised once upon a time. Not so in the Soviet Union where the country, the state, the system was an expedient instrument for self-advancement. Communism was a hoax, the great collective socialist states of the Soviet ‘republic’ in truth just another grubby dictatorship.
If this sounds grim, it was/is, and may hardly be a thing to jest about. Yet gallows humour and satire can be therapeutic, cathartic. When life is so bad that the choices come down to despair or laughter, laughing is probably the better option. At least that’s what the filmmaker and actors think here in this bizarre, affectionate send-up of the Soviet state.
The parody of tyranny begins in 1953 with the death of Stalin. The film opens with a concert of Mozart being performed in Moscow. Stalin for some reason loves Mozart but has not attended the concert. Instead, by diktat, he wants a recording of the concert made on a vinyl LP and sent to his dacha immediately. Technical problems ensue in the sound-recording booth. They didn’t get the concert down on vinyl, thus, sensibly fearing for their lives, the technicians declare that the concert be repeated. But there’s another glitch. The conductor has dropped dead from a heart attack, sparing Stalin the trouble of executing him.
The NKVD, Beria’s security forces, go into action. Dark limousines and men with guns in trench coats arrive at the apartment of another conductor. He and his wife hear the commotion outside and look down into the street. Dark figures are seen entering the building and their body language does not look good. The conductor, standing in his pyjamas, trembles and kisses his wife repeatedly. “I love you,” he says, and she says the same to him. So this is what the end looks like. He had often wondered about it but never dreamed he’d be carted off in his pyjamas. But the prison cell in which he thought he’d be beaten to a bloody pulp does not materialize. Instead, he’s led into the concert hall and placed on the stage (still in his pyjamas). The original audience has gone home, so new concert-goers have been hastily recruited for the show: peasants, serfs, farmers, people who have never heard Mozart before or even heard of him. One man in a long grey beard arrives with his goat and an old babushka knits or darns socks as the orchestra plays.
At any rate, the second performance is a success because the technicians got it down on vinyl for Stalin. The record is soon whisked away and driven directly to Stalin’s dacha. The supreme leader of all the soviets is not in a good mood. He is impatient and cursing, using the foul language that every other person in this drama uses. But no shots ring out and no blood is spilled as the record arrives. Instead, Stalin slams the door and places the LP on the turntable. Ah, Mozart. Such an ineffable soul, a prodigy, a genius. But inside the record sleeve there’s a note inserted by someone. Stalin reads it and laughs. What a joke, someone accusing him of mass murder and other anti-social acts. Yes, quite amusing. He has a laughing fit, gags, clutches his heart, falls to the floor, shakes a little, wets his pants, moans and loses consciousness. So the great stricken leader now lies in a pool of his own pee while the ineffable Mozart plays on.
The news is electrifying: too strange, too stunning to take in. There are gasps of disbelief and crocodile tears of wailing. The dear leader is not quite dead yet but dying, his pulse and breath now faint. The mad rush to get to the dacha first is now on. Lavrenti Beria, head of security, is the first to arrive. He enters Stalin’s study, bolts the door, crouches over the inert figure of the fallen leader and grimaces at the state and stench of the man, particularly the smell of urine, a liquid he now kneels in. He whispers to the old boy that he’s had a good run, but maybe now he should doddle off. It isn’t clear whether Stalin has heard him or not because he’s had a stroke and later when he has temporarily recovered can say nothing intelligible, babbling like a baby when he tries. Very amusing. Those gathered around his bedside don’t say it but they think it, the great leader and orator now with nothing to say.
So, the vultures wait and wonder. Who will win out? Who will become the new Stalin in the rugby- scrum power grab in the upper echelon of the party? The remainder of the drama will determine this. Dramatis personae follow now (name of the actors in parentheses).
Council of Ministers:
• The aforementioned Lavrenti Beria, head of the NKVD: torturer, rapist, psychopath and Stalin’s loyal henchman (Simon Russell Beale)
• Nikita Khrushchev: Commissar, aide to Stalin (Steve Buscemi)
• Georgy Malenkov: Deputy Secretary, technically first in line to ascend to party head (Jeffrey Tambor)
• Vyacheslav Molotov: Foreign Minister (Michael Palin)
• Lazar Kaganovich: First Deputy Chairman (Dermont Crowley)
• Anastas Mikoyan: Chairman of the Presidium (Paul Whitehouse)
• Nicolai Buganin: Chairman of the Council of Ministers (Paul Chahidi)
• Leonid Brezhnev: General Secretary (Gerald Lepkowski)
The military (Red Army):
• Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov: broad chested, the chest full of medals, proud and confident, the defender of Stalingrad, the victor over Hitler, a national hero who loves to call the shots. He is not modest. (Jason Isaacs)
Stalin’s grown children (not interested in party leadership):
• Svetlana: spoiled, pampered princess, neurotic and out of touch with the reality (Andrea Riseborough)
• Vasily: vodka-swilling troublemaker whose favourite stunt is to fire off his revolver while drunk in a room full of people. At one point Field Marshal Zhukov punches him in the gut and hog ties him to restore peace and tranquility to those gathered, confessing afterward that it felt good. (Rupert Friend)
History records how the drama played out. After the state funeral, which lasted three days, party committees were convened. Malenkov becomes the acting Secretary General to the party but he is weak, a pushover, essentially. He won’t last long in the job before a purge removes him. That comes actually rather quickly. The main gladiators in the ring are Beria and Khrushchev, both ambitious and ruthless, both thoroughly unprincipled. Two can’t win. Only one can. It doesn’t spoil much by revealing who takes the bullet after a hastily assembled kangaroo court trial. When Beria goes down it’s almost as satisfying as seeing Stalin expire. His send-off is unceremonious — a bullet to the face then gasoline doused on the corpse and ignited. The others look on in wonder as the body is transformed, ash rising from it through the air. Strange to think that Stalin’s fat brutal henchman can be reduced to something so light that it floats.
Marx had good ideas, but they were impossibly too good. Plus he didn’t take into account how vicious human nature can be. His mistake was to think others would think as reasonably as he did. They did not. They were greedy and selfish. They were also made violent in order to protect their greed. Power does more than just corrupt. It disfigures and perverts. Those who can’t handle it well end up abusing it because they can. The Soviet state was a disaster and its orphan, Russia, remains one, a totalitarian state in all but name, its freedoms partial, its oppression real. There is no democracy there. It’s all window dressing, a charade.
We may laugh at the idiotic clowns who ran the place under Stalin and thereafter, but in truth they were deadly mobsters and still are. Geopolitics have changed and Russia has partly come in from the cold. Globalization has forced the country to be more open. But the old hostilities and stresses remain. Power is wielded by a strongman whose vassals protect him while he remains powerful. But when the power slips and the energy fades the vultures will come circling again. A satire in the future of the death of Putin might be just as entertaining as this one here on Stalin.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on December 8, 2018
Saw the film in the cinema some months back, really great to watch, very funny (in the "ha ha ha" way). Unfotunately the DVD disc is funny in the "funny, hmm, this should work, very funny, this doesn't work" way. The disc did not appear scratched or dirty. I wonder if the manufacturer is using a new DVD format of some kind that my player, and probably most others, might not recognise. I don't see this issue often, and most of the recently produced (various movies from spring through sumemr 2018) DVDs I have bought all work fine. Issue doesn't seem to affect all DVDs from this manufacturer (eOne entertainment), just this one. Not sure if a future release of this as a different edition might work better or not.
5.0 out of 5 starsPlenty of great performances but for me most memorable (and true to ...
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on March 23, 2018
Superb film , darkly comic. Portrayal of Beria exactly right mix of monstrous , vindictiveness and jollity ( give that man Russell Beale an Oscar ) and inspired having the cast use their own accents rather than cod Russian . Plenty of great performances but for me most memorable (and true to the actual time )was Michael Palin as Molotov and his justification of Stalin's treatment of his wife , imprisoned several floors below Politburo meetings. Again , really impressive acting . Finally -Portrayal of Zhukov made me laugh out loud , full of spirit, vim and guile !
4.0 out of 5 starsif you like. It's a sometimes daft
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on September 7, 2018
An old school comedy of errors, if you like. It's a sometimes daft, sometimes subtle humour, perhaps not for everyone but very cleverly written and executed by the cast. Though the story intrigued me and the characters are well played, due to the string of five star reviews informing me of just how funny it was, I expected a few more belly laughs to be honest. But that being said, I know I'll be giving it another watch in the future and I'll probably find new things with each watch.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on December 23, 2019
Not only is this a wonderfully funny and entertaining film the humour is built upon some events which did actually happen. The interaction between the characters is great to watch and the manner in which Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, the head of the KGB and a serial rapist and murderer, is masterful. Beria had the tables turned on him by Khrushchev and the other Committee members which saw him pleading for his life but being shot out of hand. One of the most amusing characters in the film was The head of the Soviet Army - Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov played by Jason Issacs who, considering he is either Canadian or American, has a real talent for accents. In this case he played Zhukov with a Manchester accent. I usually rate a film on how much I enjoyed it, of course, but also on the number of times I will watch it. I have watched this film on Amazon Prime probably more than 10 times over the last year. Its availability was changed to rent or purchase and so I decided to wisely invest in a cracking film.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on December 4, 2018
This film seems to be built around the single comedic riff of Russian characters talking in an American or Yorkshire accent. I have enjoyed Iannucci's output in the past, notably the first season of The Thick of It, which I found to be hilarious. The difference between such work and this film, however, is the absence of any intelligent jokes in The Death of Stalin. Here, the farce aspect of proceedings is relied upon to make up for the deficiencies in the script. I can honestly say I did not laugh once during this film, even though I am an Iannucci fan and therefore went into it without any cynicism.
The film deals with some quite sombre events in Russian history and the quasi-educational nature of the film is some kind of consolation. However, it cannot compensate for the completely uninspired script.
Ok, so they don't try and put on fake Russian accents, but put on fake regional ones instead. Like a Yorkshireman that you've got to somehow accept is Russian! If they'd done the film with the actor's normal voices this would have been so much better. The satire isn't that great either. I really wanted this to be superb and perhaps my hopes were too high, but ultimately there wasn't any part of the film I could say was worth watching again, sorry.
4.0 out of 5 starsWitty parody with a sinister twist.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on May 9, 2020
Brilliantly comic history of the tussles for power during the immediate aftermath of Stalin's death. Originally a book and stage play, Armando Iannucci co wrote and directed this film parody of Soviet power in the early 1950s without losing its true historical perspective. What makes it especially absorbing is that none of the actors attempts a fake Russian accent. Simon Russell Beale excels as the head of KGB Beria. And Field Marshall Zhukov's portrayal by Jason Isaacs as a blunt, bullying Yorkshire man is worthy of individual praise (Nb actor JI is not from Yorkshire).
4.0 out of 5 starsGood, necessarily dark, comedy, easier to appreciate if you already know the history
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on April 9, 2019
Good, necessarily dark, comedy, given its subject, the death in 1953 of the murderous communist dictator Joseph Stalin and the struggles for power and survival that followed among his senior officials, generals, KGB men and children.
This film divides both professional and Amazon reviewers. It is more likely to be appreciated by those who are already interested in and know something of this period of Soviet history. It helps if you already know who people like Molotov, Malenkov, Beria, Khrushchev and Marshall Zhukov were.
As far as I can judge, while this film does not go for 100% factual accuracy it does capture something of what it was probably like.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on October 27, 2018
A scatological/coprophilous triumph! What a depressing, exploitative, ill-conceived and badly cast film. In order to make it clear that Khrushchev is not a mother-tongue Russian speaker but a mother-tongue speaker of Ukrainian, the actor playing him is an American with an American accent. Many of the other members of the cast seem to be half asleep.
There are moments in the this wonderful satire that are far to close to reality than are comfortable. The characterization of Beriya and Zukov are far far to close !! Unexpectedly the weakest character is Sir ( now ) Michael Palin as Molotov. For me that just didn't work. BUT there are so many LOL moments, ( a lot from Svetlana and Vasily ) plus some lovely cinematic moments in Red Square. Buscemi is so very good as Khrushchev, albeit that as the father of the cold war, Iannccui omitted to use Khrushchevs infamous quote.... 'Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you'. A great film.. do watch....
The weird thing is, it's pretty close to the run of events - maybe not in specifics, but in snapshot historical portrayal, and it's also really funny. This is weird, because what do you call it when the satirical representation seems more historically accurate than the actuality!? Probably excellent satire - laughed heartily, was enthused to learn more of the history, and was especially glad to be doing both in a, notionally, free society. Recommended
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 20, 2019
This is a great ensemble film, finding shafts of dark humour amidst the political turmoil that followed Stalin's death. The casting is superb, and the script fairly sizzles along while being grounded in historical verisimilitude, capturing the panic and paranoia rife amongst the party leaders as they cast around for a successor. The film has a low-budget feel, and for me felt stagey rather than filmic, but this did not distract from my enjoyment of it. A film that I can see myself returning to. Recommended.