The Death of Stalin

Now on Netflix, this dark comedy is at once horrifying and hilarious. Great performances, a razor sharp script, and fascinating history, combine in this enthralling movie.

The movie starts slowly. An orchestra is performing a concert on the radio. Joseph Stalin, the ruthless leader of the USSR, listens to the performance and orders a recording of the performance. They did not record the performance and the technicians and the orchestra rush to reproduce the performance exactly in order to create a recording for Stalin. These people are terrified and go to extreme lengths to satisfy Stalin. Stalin was terrifying and held his country in a stranglehold.

When Stalin get his recording, he suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and drops to the floor. Cue the sycophants and bureaucrats. They come running and jockey for positions of power now that Stalin is no more. The movie takes off and never stops from this point on. The key player is Krushchev played by Steve Buscemi. He has plans and ambitions for the Soviet Union, but first he must pretend to weep over Stalin’s body because if Stalin recovers and find out that Krushchev didn’t weep over him, he’ll be furious. They have to hire a doctor, but they recently had all the good doctors killed, so they have to find a decent doctor that will please Stalin if he recovers.

This type of irony runs throughout the film. It is hilarious at moments while at the same time providing such an interesting commentary on cronyism and a system of government in which the appearance of loyalty is more important than anything else.

Krushchev is in direct competition with Lavrentiy Beria played by Simon Russell Beale. Beria is terrifying. He is the head of the KGB and the secret police. He runs secret prisons and is shown torturing people, but Beria plays the game and he plays it well. The political maneuvering between Beria and Krushchev is subtle and fascinating to watch. They play the game and work the system in order to push themselves into more powerful positions. Political machinations have rarely been this entertaining.

Two standout comedic performances come from Jason Isaacs, you’ll recognize him as the villain from every other movie, as the general Georgy Zhukov leader of the army and the most manly man who ever manned. He doesn’t put up with any politicking or foolishness. He is a man of decisive action who spits every line no matter how crass with authority. He is contrasted by Stalin’s son Vasily played by Rupert Friend. Vasily is a drunk and an absolute baboon. He charges head first into every room to great comedic effect. Everything he does in the movie is outrageous.

Of course at the same time that the film is hilarious, it is also terrifying to think of living in this world. A world where the whims of a cruel leader send hundreds to their deaths. A world in which people have to protract themselves in mock grief for fear of being shot on the spot. A world in which a man has to protest that his wife is a treacherous sow one minute and claim she was always innocent the next because it is politically expedient. This film is very effective and thought provoking while being a nonstop thrill to watch.

The language is very harsh. There is a lot of suggestive material. There are scenes of torture. It probably won’t be for everybody. That said, it is a very rewarding film if you give it shot. It’s currently streaming on Netflix. I love this movie. It’s my cup of tea. – A

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