The Death of Stalin begins with, an, ahem, arresting moment. A concert for radio is just winding up in Moscow, when the broadcast producers receive a message: Secretary-General Stalin was listening, and loved the music so much, that he would like a copy of the recording. Panic ensues, because the concert was not recorded. So, the harried producers lock the door, hustle the audience back to their seats, and play the whole concert one more time. They have to bribe the pianist, the great Maria Yudina, with 20,000 roubles, a fortune. The record is in Stalin’s hands the next day — complete with a note denouncing Stalin, written by Yudina, that she has pushed into the record’s sleeve — when he is felled by a cerebral haemorrhage, and falls to the floor, dying some hours later.
The concert happened, but not like that. It was in 1944, nine years before Stalin’s death, while the Great Patriotic War against Fascism was still being fought. Yudina was a favoured artist, given great leeway. She wore an orthodox crucifix necklace at concerts, and recited banned poems. The 20,000 roubles came not from Radio Moscow, but from Stalin — he ordered it sent to her, after receiving the record. She sent him a “thank you” note saying that, to atone for his crimes against the Russian people, she would donate it to her church. Stalin later read the letter out to the Central Committee, and took no action against her.
Does the near-wholly fictionalised account of these events in The Death of Stalin — directed by The Thick Of It’s Armando Iannucci, which opens in Australian cinemas today — matter much? The movie depicts the aftermath of Stalin’s death, as the half-dozen Central Committee leaders around him jostled for power, a process that ended with the killing of the one-time NKVD (KGB forerunner) Lavrenty Beria – probably shot by his fellow central committeemen with revolvers, though here despatched by the army. The process took three months, as the politburo continued to run a vast empire, and its satellites amidst a cod war. Here it takes a few days, and the pace has a distinctly Godfather-ish feel (though not the look; it has the typically slapdash British comedy visual styling). Does that matter?
The answer is yes, of course. There would be something bloody odd about saying that a film about Stalinism had hundreds of compressions, inventions, inaccuracies and (deliberate or otherwise) significant historical errors, and that it didn’t matter at all. But how much? That is a very interesting question, because whatever errors it has created, the film captures a great truth — the squalor, pettiness and gangsterism of politics everywhere, whether its daily business is municipal or mass murder.
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Thus we have the first movie about Soviet life that does distance us from the principals with cod-Russian compare-the-meerkat accents and banners in Cyrillic. Stalin and his committee — Molotov, Malenkov, Khruschev and others — are played in English and American accents, which reasonably reproduces what this collection of men from the polyglot Russian empire would have sounded like.
Adrian McLoughlin’s Stalin is a live-wire cockney short-arse, unquestionably based on Alan Sugar from the UK version of The Apprentice, the only one of his number in military fatigues, enjoying their discomfort. Beria, fat, besuited, is a lethal form of Bristow, the cartoonish public servant who appeared for decades in The Daily Express; Jeffrey Tambor plays Malenkov as a shivering neurotic, Steve Buscemi does Khruschev as, well, as the Steve Buscemi guy, the beta mook, just trying to get through the day.
The funniest turn – and perhaps a fall into cheap comedy, the point at which the film really becomes Carry On Up the Gulag – is Jason Isaacs’s Marshall Zhukov, one-time head of the Red Army as a larging-it Geordie. “Reet layyydies,” he says to the assembled grey men, while loading a submachine gun ahead of the killing of Beria — “shell wuh gee torn weeth it!”.
Iannucci, a comedy writer-director-producer of great talent (The Day Today, The Thick Of It, Veep and a whole range of smaller shows never seen by Australian audiences), has, where comedy works, corrected a lot of the portentousness of earlier renditions. He’s drawn on work such as Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Court of the Red Tsar, but above all, captured what is uppermost in any clear reading of the era and the time: the desperate day-to-day improvisation of those around Stalin as, in 1952, he embarked on a new terror, one even more paranoid and unbalanced than that of 1937-1938.
But comedy has its limits, moral and otherwise, and The Death of Stalin hits the buffers pretty soon. To give a background against which the commeddia dell’arggggghh can be performed, Iannucci has taken an utterly conventional, and now archaic, view of Soviet totalitarian society — somewhat more cartoonish than the French graphic novel of which the film is an adaptation.
Works like Australian historian Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism, or Karl Schlogel’s Moscow 1937, have revised the picture, created overwhelmingly by Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, of totalitarian societies as drone-worlds, with nothing else going on. The truth would appear to be that totalitarianism, except for short periods at its most lethal and terrifying, ain’t total; the business of life goes on. Thus The Death of Stalin has moments that seriously distort the record. Showing how conflicting orders had the army shoot down rural Russians coming to Moscow for Stalin’s funeral, it misses that many died in crowd crushes, while trying to view his body — the sort of thing that happens at Mecca, or at English soccer grounds, or any other religious or quasi-religious event.
That does matter, even amid the deliberate lethality, because at some point the film cannot integrate terror and mundanity, in the way life did, and lapses into a Marvel comic’s view of these events, with everyone shooting each other at the drop of a woolly cap. Disappointing, but hardly surprising. Iannucci, when this correspondent interviewed him – one of those phone-ins, done back-to-back in their dozens, to give the impression of a special artistic encounter while selling the film on a global scale (you can see several examples in the Oz press concurrently) – turned out, disappointingly, but not surprisingly, to be an utterly conventional thinker, when in non-comic mode.
“I read Orwell and Darkness At Noon,” he said in his softened Glaswegian accent, “but I didn’t know much about this before we started it.” No background in Glasgow’s Communist subculture, perhaps the largest in the English-speaking world? “Naw, I think you had to be a dockworker.”
Iannucci’s comedy, through his various works, turn on a ha’penny, drawing on the whole British heritage of satire, nonsense, Joycean wordplay. But that works best in places where politics has become a wholly absurd sideshow — such as the declining Blair-esque government depicted in The Thick Of It. When it’s the centre of the century, a conventional liberal humanist like Iannucci — one of whose principal concerns amid all this death was the sufferings of the composer Shostakovich — cannot encompass it. The interview got hilariously terse, when it stopped being promo blather, and got actually political:
GR: I guess the question is, even with this death, is there sometimes a case for dictatorship?
IA: Well, uh-
GR: I mean, if you compare say China and India, well there’s no contest … China has lifted a billion people out of poverty, India’s just put a small middle class over an unchanged poor rural society.
IA: Well, yes, but uh er uh, there’s been no dictatorship in India, so there’s nothing to compare-
GR: But that’s precisely my point. The two societies are similar enough to constitute an experiment in real time.
IA: (pause). Is there anything else you want to ask?
GR: No, I’m done.
IA: (archly) Well good to get that debate sorted out (rings off).
Great fun, amid the mass market, endless re-performance of the West’s now-vanished other, the needle put down in the groove, as the music starts once more. The Death of Stalin is a very funny, very knowing, and in places illuminating and compassionate film. See it now, because in 10 years’ time it will be unwatchable by reason of being silly, or obscene, or both.