Tonight we saw The Death of Stalin, the film. It’s based on the graphic novel I reviewed a few months back. It’s a great film.

stalin-dies

Standing: Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale

The overall plot is the same, but it feels like there’s a lot more material– scenes of Khrushchev and his wife, scenes of Beria in his hellish HQ, scenes about planning the funeral, a recap of Stalin’s dinner and movie night with his colleagues just before his death. Some subtle differences:

  • Marshal Zhukov comes in later, and is treated far more reverentially. In the book he was an ugly, stiff bastard; here, he’s loud and no-nonsense and the only person not afraid of Beria.
  • There’s no open sex (which is just as well), but an unsettling number of on-screen murders.
  • The comeuppance of Beria is telescoped: rather than three months after Stalin’s funeral, followed by an actual trial (though of the kangaroo type), it’s presented as happening on the day of the funeral, followed by immediate execution.
  • Though everyone gets screen time, the story becomes far more focused on the power struggle between Khrushchev and Beria.
  • You’d think the comic version would be more cartoony, but in many ways the movie is. There’s a good deal more slapstick involving the puddle of urine around Stalin’s body, and the Central Committee awkwardly carrying him to his bed.
  • At the same time, though the graphic novel is dark, the film is darker.  This mostly, I think, comes from the handling of Beria. The graphic novel allows him a little comedy; in the film he’s just pure evil– 0% approval rating, as TV Tropes puts it.

A lot of reviews treat the film as a comedy or satire, but don’t expect it to be Blazing Saddles. A lot of it is not funny at all: the dreaded midnight knocks on the door, Beria’s torture chambers, his savage end. But there is a rich dark humor to be found when morality is of little use and competence is far less valued than loyalty.

The other thing the film has, of course, is actors. It’s very well served here. Simon Beale is a great villain. I wouldn’t have thought Steve Buscemi would fit the role (isn’t he always a lizardy low-life?), but he does great, and he manages a convincing arc from buffoon to top dog. Jeffrey Tambor is perfect as the hapless Malenkov; he gets across the plaintive air of a stupid man who is aware that he looks stupid and resents it enormously.

Though it was written and filmed before Trump’s election, the film surely sheds a good deal of light on how a corrupt, narcissistic, traitorous buffoon can hold such a grip on the Republican Party. You don’t actually need a canny old dictator or a secret police to hold the party in line: the threat of a primary, or the wrath of Fox News, is sufficient.

If you see it, you’ll probably want to know more about the real history; this page is a good place to start on untangling what’s true or not. (The absurdity of the event is not a clue.) The movie hints that the intrigue didn’t stop, and this is quite true– Khrushchev’s allies mostly turned on him four years later, and failed; a relative newcomer, Brezhnev, forced him out in 1965.

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