Mar 29, 2018

Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is hilarious, but politically naive

Iannucci is a master comedy writer, no doubt, but at some point the film lapses into a Marvel comic's view of events in totalitarian Russia.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


Flm director Armando Iannucci (centre) on the set of his new film The Death of Stalin.

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.

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12 thoughts on “Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is hilarious, but politically naive

  1. rhwombat

    “…continued to run a vast empire, and its satellites amidst a cod war”. I thought that was the Poms?

    1. AR

      I assumed that was just grundle in his typo-king mode but it may have been his theme -“the principals with cod-Russian …accents” – about historical inaccuracies.

  2. Nudiefish

    I can’t help but disagree, Guy.

    First of all, it is a comedy, not a documentary, and a hilarious one at that.

    Secondly, having read extensively about Stalin and his leadership group (or, henchmen, if you prefer) the movie captures the utter incapacity of his aging retainers to formulate a coherent independent thought whilst wracked with anxiety. That bit about Stalin lying in a puddle of piss for hours because everybody was frozen in indecision about what to do was absolutely real.

    Stalin liked having these guys living on the edge of the gallows and in direct competition with other. They had full time ministries to run, but every night forced into drinking parties with their leader until dawn. Nobody quit carousing until Stalin went to bed, but they didn’t have the luxury of sleeping in like he could. Nor were they young men.

    Lastly, the death of Stalin could have gone a number of different ways and many of those ways might have involved most of the leadership group getting it in the back of the head. It was very uncertain times and they were not at all that friendly with each other. Most of them formed strategic alliances at best. Lavrenty Beria was most definitely a lethal menace to them all. The movie did get this spooky feeling very well.

    It is true that the real historical details were all over the shop, and that the many shootings portrayed did not happen that way, or in that sequence. But the terror was real, even if lessened a great deal by war’s end. If a comedy cannot depart from reality then the very idea of comedy and theater has changed in bizarre directions.

    I would recommend this flick to everybody and in a rare disagreement with Guy, I think that it will age very well indeed.

    1. Guy Rundle

      I said:
      “…the film captures a great truth — the squalor, pettiness and gangsterism of politics everywhere, whether its daily business is municipal or mass murder.”
      which pretty much agrees with what you’ve said. If you think it’s of zero importance that a film about Stalin has changed hundreds of facts to make a viable commercial product, i think you’re missing one of the key points about Stalin.

  3. Arky

    I’m not sure what you were trying to achieve by having a comedy director in the midst of promotional interviews for his film answer a question about whether dictatorship can be justified. The poor bloke probably thought you were trying to trap him into saying something controversial about the Chinese or the Indians that could be beaten up into a headline. He may even have been right.

    1. Guy Rundle

      Yes, god forbid someone who made a film about Stalin should be asked to talk about politics! The horror!

  4. John Porter

    As DI Vera Stanhope would say ‘you got it wrong there, pet’. Jason Isaac’s Zhukov was no Geordie, not even a Makem. No, you have to go 100 miles south! He’s a blustering rollicking Yorkshireman (they don’t call it the Texas of England for nothing).

    I loved the film and, in his smartly comedic way, Ianucci was able to convey the mundane horribleness of that time in the Soviet Union. I think the line that got to me most was when Beria, on the execution of a married couple, was issuing the order to shoot one first so the other would see it. That depiction of Beria is one of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen in a comedy.

    Heartily recommended and a warning of what could happen again.

    1. Guy Rundle

      Bugger, yr right. Gah. Brain freeze. Tks.

  5. AR

    A small point, Bristow was not a civil servant but the silently suffering lowly buying clerk for the corporate megalomaniac Chester-Perry.
    Perhaps grundle could filch the title of his unpublished magnum opus for his long awaited “Living Death in the Knowledge-Policy Class Kultur Wars”?
    Maria Yudina could be Miss Pretty from Kleenaphone if she hasn’t already left on the Golgafrincham B Ark.

  6. rumtytum

    Thank heavens you blew the whistle Guy. It’s not just the history they’ve got wrong here. Buscemi isn’t fat enough to play Kruschev, Beria is too fat, the list goes on and on. They can claim it’s all based on a comic and that they’re showing the grubby side of politics whether it’s in Trump’s America, May’s UK or Putin’s Russia but pinpoint accuracy is really important to some of us. Thank you.

    1. rhwombat

      Hey! You kids! get off my History!

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