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On the screen: Laughter in the Lubyanka

Posted By on May 5, 2018 @ 10:00

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph left no one in any doubt as to its view of the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin on 5 March 1953. ‘Stalin Dead – Hooray!’ ran the headline on Frank Packer’s tabloid.

This was the sentiment of many in the West at the height of the Cold War, with fighting in Korea and nuclear confrontation between the Soviet empire and the West, led by the United States.

Now along comes Armando Iannucci, whose satirical eye and appreciation for the absurd in politics has already given us the television series The Thick of It and Veep. Iannucci’s directorial talents are now on display in a brilliant, if bleak comedy, The Death of Stalin, focusing on the events in Moscow after the despot’s death at his dacha at Kuntsevo.

The screenplay is based on a French graphic novel, La mort de Staline, which successfully translated real personalities on the Politburo and real events from Stalin’s funeral into the realm of the truly bizarre. Given the nature of Stalinist life in the Moscow of 1953, this was a relatively short journey.

Iannucci maintains that the movie is true half the time. Actually, it’s probably truer than most people would ever realise. Indeed, the scene where Stalin insists on receiving a recording of an orchestral performance that hadn’t been recorded was actually more nonsensical than the movie suggests. In the movie, the conductor collapses and has to be replaced by another maestro, who’s dragged into the theatre in his pyjamas while his neighbours are being rounded up by Lavrenti Beria’s secret police (MVD).

The reality is that the orchestral performance Stalin insisted upon having recorded actually required three conductors because the first was too nervous and the second one was too drunk to perform. The note of denunciation of Stalin’s crimes secreted in the disc’s sleeve by pianist Maria Yudina (portrayed by Olga Kurlyenko), never occurred. But the recording did.

Iannucci has done what all great satirists aspire to do. He has taken reality and twisted it half a notch. To arrive at this wickedly funny film, the director has assembled a superb cast. Simon Russel Beale is truly chilling as Beria, the ruthless and ambitious secret policeman who’s determined to succeed Stalin. His brutality, which includes serial sexual assault, is on display for all to see, just as it was in Moscow throughout his loathsome period as Stalin’s principal henchman.

Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khruschev performs the role of counterpoint to Beria. Khruschev was no saint. As a party boss in Ukraine, he was blood-soaked. But Buscemi breathes life into Khruschev’s emergence as the eventual successor to Stalin, manoeuvring his opponents on the Politburo into denouncing Beria and having him liquidated.

Stalin died in his private rooms at his dacha. He was never to be disturbed there, so the stroke that felled him was untreated for several hours. All of this is true, as is the fact that the usual Kremlin doctors had either been executed in the Lubyanka, or were serving time in the Gulag at Kolyma or points further east in Siberia.

This was a direct consequence of Stalin’s murderous paranoia, which had produced the ‘Doctors plot’, an anti-Semitic purge of Moscow medicos who were supposedly planning to assassinate Stalin and the members of the Politburo. Like almost all the charges levelled at leading Bolsheviks during the 1930s, the charges were without foundation. But Beria fed Stalin’s paranoia and ‘the organs’—the police and security organisations—had grown very astute in telling the dictator what he wanted to hear.

Stalin’s death bewilders and destabilises the Politburo. What are they to do? The doctors who are brought to Kuntsevo represent the sweepings of the surgery floor. Svetlana Stalin, brilliantly played by Andrea Riseborough, denounces the doctors brought to treat her father, claiming that one of them is actually dead. And the scene in which the MVD arrests a doctor who’s out walking his dog among the monuments of Soviet triumphs is worth the price of admission alone.

Jeffrey Tambor is more than competent as Malenkov, the feeble and cowardly deputy to Stalin. Michael Palin is fascinating as Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, although at times he appears to be on the edge of a Monty Python-esque reference, as when he needs to spend a ‘kopek’ in the Kremlin men’s room.

But as reality imitates art, the character who steals the show is Marshall Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), whose northern England accent is perfect as the hardened and abrasive Soviet military leader. Once the Politburo has made up its mind as to Beria’s end, it is Zhukov who sets the wheels in motion.

Is this portrayal of Stalin’s inner circle accurate? One only needs to read Milovan Djilas’ Conversations with Stalin to answer confidently and affirmatively.

More recently, Simon Sebag Montefiore in Stalin: the court of the red tsar sketched the capriciousness and uncertainty of life among Soviet elites while Stalin was in power.

Malenkov was once supposed to have remarked to Khruschev as they returned to Moscow after one of Stalin’s drunken gatherings at his dacha that he never knew whether he was going home or going to prison.

This movie is a romp not to be missed. It establishes a new standard in political satire. If anyone is unsure, then be alert to the fact that the Russian Ministry of Culture has banned screenings of The Death of Stalin. The Pioneer Theatre in Moscow, which defied the ban, was subject to a police raid.

Could Vladimir Putin survive under Stalin? No question: he would prosper. Indeed, Putin’s dacha at Sochi on the Black Sea is a veritable stone’s throw from the dacha once occupied by Stalin.

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