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The Dream of the Reformer: Armando Iannucci's "The Death of Stalin"

A film frustratingly at odds with itself, Iannucci’s latest says more about the politics it would suppress than the politics it depicts.
Ryan Meehan
Armando Iannucci believes in Nikita Khrushchev. It’s a strange notion to consider at first. For the better part of a decade, the Scottish television and filmmaker has told the stories of a political class both pathologically vain and terminally inept. There’s much to laugh at in the likes of The Thick of It (2005–2012) and Veep (2012–), where politicians much like our own so routinely surrender their convictions to maintain power, and just as routinely end up giving both away, but there’s little to admire. To be a politician, in Iannucci’s world, is to be a coward. All the more conspicuous, then, that for his second feature, The Death of Stalin, Iannucci chose Khrushchev—the figure perhaps most synonymous with churning, mid-century Soviet bureaucracy—as his first bona fide hero.
“Hero” is the only word for the role played so expansively by Steve Buscemi. One of the great tragicomic actors working today, Buscemi animates Khrushchev with a relentless energy and a psychological depth yet unseen in Iannucci’s work. The Death of Stalin is, in fact, the story of the rise of Khrushchev: his transformation from a bumbling, marginal functionary in the Soviet Presidium into the sober tactician at the center of its powerful machinery. It’s a sophisticated trajectory, with aspirations as richly novelistic as one is likely to find in any film, let alone a comedy.
It can be difficult, in these moments, to recognize Iannucci the Cynic in these more humanistic trappings. After all, if Khrushchev is his most sympathetic creation, his most impressive is still Malcolm Tucker, the amoral director of communications in The Thick of It, whose singular quest for power culminates in a Mephistophelean turn at the center of Iannucci’s feature debut, In the Loop (2009). Tucker is an agent of cynicism, and if we feel a grim thrill at his triumph, it’s the thrill of inevitability that the noblest of efforts will soon be brought low.
The proxy for Tucker and what he represents in The Death of Stalin, then, is Lavrentiy Beria, head of the NKVD and grand inquisitor of Stalin’s purges. At the heart of Stalin’s police state, Beria is the repository of the unredacted memory of the regime—its dysfunction, its corruption, its lethality. This total knowledge is its own totalizing obsession, and he uses the intelligence he’s gathered at every turn to outflank, cajole, and threaten his rivals. Beria, like Tucker, believes only in his ability to manipulate others, and so underestimates the earnest, affable Khrushchev. Throughout the film, the two circle one another as an inverted pair: the one Stalin’s right arm, the other his entourage’s comic relief; the one in a gray suit barely concealing his pajamas, the other in jet black with every stitch in place; the one weaving webs in secret, the other lodging his awkward protestations for all in the Central Committee to see. At the center of their dance is the question of reform—the end to the terror; in effect, De-Stalinization. Khrushchev’s support, Iannucci makes clear, is authentic, while Beria’s is merely another cynical ploy to consolidate his own power.
Why this should matter from a dramatic standpoint is clear. Like many of the characters and circumstances in the film, Iannucci must evoke the spymaster for his audience out of whole cloth. Royal Shakespearean Simon Russell Beale’s demoniac restraint goes some considerable way on this matter, but Iannucci completes the picture by associating Beria’s ruthlessness and depravity, time and again, with the much more infamous figure of the film’s title. As with the Ford-Wayne cowboy picture Stalin’s entourage takes in at their leader’s behest, we as the audience know enough to root against the man in black.
Why it matters from a moral standpoint is murkier, and Iannucci’s efforts to engage thematically are glancing, superficial—increasingly, they signify a guilty desire to acknowledge rather than engage. Policy gamesmanship is commonplace, in The Thick of It for instance—ideas leak from party to party, often upstream to the one in charge, who bask in the respite of a job (temporarily) done. Reform, by this logic, is merely another instrument of power. What great consequence is it, then, who wields it?
The answers Iannucci offers are anecdotal, and their narrative and philosophical weight soon begin to falter in tandem. The dramatic turn at the center of The Death of Stalin comes when Khrushchev realizes Beria has information that could implicate him in Stalin’s death. Up to now, Beria’s marginalization of Khrushchev—saddling him with the onerous task of planning Stalin’s funeral while Beria consolidates his power—has seemed routine. With this new information, their rivalry takes on a mortal urgency. “I’m the reformer!” Khrushchev proclaims, with a desperation to self-define we feel is at once on Buscemi’s and on Iannucci’s behalf. Impulsively, Khrushchev gives a secret order: the trains to Moscow that Beria and the NKVD have shut down, the trains that ought to carry the people in to see Stalin’s body lying in state, should be started again. Beria’s reform is a code word for control; Khrushchev’s reform, on the other hand, is glasnost.
In 1953 as in 1991, the unshackling of the literal People has unforeseen consequences. When crowds begin to swarm the outskirts of Moscow, the NKVD lose their nerve and fire—the ensuing stampede kills thousands. It’s a macabre twist on a patently Iannuccian turn: when it comes to the bureaucratic management of vast political systems, there are no ‘solutions’ to problems, only transformations of those problems into other problems. Likewise with the narrative tools themselves: what seems conceived in part as a thematically consistent and (at least theoretically) darkly funny plot point, also kicks open a door that Iannucci leaves swinging for the duration of the film, and long into any ruminations that come after the closing credits. Namely, The Death of Stalin is an elitist film. Look past the baked-in risk of wringing humor from history’s most blood-soaked dictatorship, and we see the perils of basic citizenship in Stalin’s USSR are rendered at the level of rote montage; the torture and execution of a faceless multitude chalked up as a kind of ambient punch line to the work-a-day calculations of Soviet functionaries.
The casualties signal a heightening of the contradictions of Iannucci’s past work, complicated to a problematic degree by the film’s static hero/villain relationship. In The Thick of It and Veep, the People are similarly relegated to the margins, their manners coarse and their grievances explosive. Iannucci’s handle of contemporary politics is, on this matter, incisive: when image-mediation fails, when those in power are forced into close quarters with those they ostensibly represent, the alienation is mutual and unresolvable; democracy is revealed as yet another system of management, one that—much like other systems—works most agreeably when conducted from afar. In The Death of Stalin, the failures of Soviet socialism are taken for granted: any such reckoning would be too fantastical or too extreme. The effect is to keep Iannuci’s dream—the Dream of the Reformer—in Krushchev, intact, uncomplicated, untouched. Lest they tarnish our sympathies, the trampled peasants, like props in a photo op, are ushered briskly off stage without further reflection.The Death of Stalin
But not before they can be used as leverage. A cynic in retreat is still a cynic after all, and as the paths of cat and mouse wind tighter, Khrushchev, like all great reformers, begins to take on the properties of those he wishes to reform. Beria, Khrushchev insists, is evil—a conspirer against some of their past comrades, a killer of others. The documents he has threatened them all with—proof of acts of which all are certainly guilty—prove a fatal breakdown of the Iannuccian Iago-archetype.1 The repository of memory has become a malfunctioning depository of secret shame: having lost his cool, Beria will soon—as it were—lose his head. With the stampede as pretense, and the help of Jason Isaacs’ bombastic Marshal Zhukov, Khrushchev stages a coup d’etat to seal Beria’s fate. For the epidemic of violence, Khrushchev suggests a hair of the dog: his rival’s death warrant. The film’s sympathy for its hero’s expediency is troublingly straightforward. Iannucci places the objections of liberal jurisprudence in the mouth of The Death of Stalin’s most vain and indecisive character, Stalin’s provisional successor Georgy Malenkov, played by Jeffrey Tambor. “He deserves a trial! He’s one of us!” Malenkov pleads, in appeal to forces now well beyond his control. Alternating preening and cluelessness—his stock in trade on Arrested Development—Tambor is a natural fit for Iannucci’s political world-picture.2 All the easier, then, to dismiss his appeal to justice as yet another deferral of the necessary: nay, the inevitable. Where liberalization by consensus won’t do, one must liberalize by force. “I want it on the record,” he says, at last signing warrant, “that this was not my first course of action.”
The Death of Stalin is a black comedy of the most persevering kind. It aspires to turn, judo-like, the bleakest and most gruesome qualities of its setting—Moscow, 1953, the night of and the days immediately following Joseph Stalin’s fatal cerebral hemorrhage—into the sources of laugh-out-loud ridiculousness. But during this final sequence, the film shifts rapidly into a new register, one marked by increasingly claustrophobic framing, quick cuts, confused shouting at high volume, and an abandonment of the comic timing that, up to now, Iannucci has observed as gospel. All at once, The Death of Stalin is not a comedy anymore, but a gritty historical drama.
It’s in this climax that the wellspring of Iannucci’s admiration comes into focus. At its center is a speech by Khrushchev: a condemnation, an enumeration of unspeakable crimes, the denunciation of a comrade of once-unimpeachable standing. It is not known whether Khrushchev himself read these charges aloud at Beria’s show trial, but Iannucci’s choice here is more than dramatic. It foreshadows another denunciation, still three years in the future; a denunciation that, for all its pure political symbolism, remains undiminished in historical significance: that of Stalin himself. “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,” the speech Khrushchev delivered to a closed-door session of the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, is the skeleton key for The Death of Stalin. By naming Stalin’s crimes for what they were, and for criticizing the self-aggrandizing purpose they served, Khrushchev renounced the terror that was the source of his predecessor’s power—out of contrition, perhaps; out of strategy, without question; but above all, out of a certainty that the survival of the Soviet project depended on it. The ‘Secret Speech,’ as it came to be known, was at once an act of radical demystification and grave political consequence; a gesture which for Iannucci encompasses both the highest aims of his own project, and the kind of courage which that very project suggests is—in our current historical moment—no longer possible.
The Death of Stalin, then is a twofold story: that of Khrushchev’s path to power; and that of his path to 1956, to the speech still to come, to Iannucci’s idea of Khrushchev. One is dramatic, the other thematic. The film's mixed success, then, stems directly from Iannucci’s failure to acknowledge (or choice to ignore) that these threads are not, in fact, identical; that, moreover, the aims of each may in fact be philosophically opposed. The film’s investment in Khrushchev’s heroism, in the necessity that he must triumph over the monstrous Beria, that he must, as regards 1956, become 'himself', means that the implicit critique endemic to the director’s other properties—that the perspective of those in power, the perspective that conditions the audience's sympathy, can and should be punctured by the eruptions of the democratic masses (or, at the very least, a democratic conscience)—can never meaningfully emerge.
As if sensing this absence, the film generates a kind of unconscious, overdetermined response. The Death of Stalin makes no claim, in general, to historical accuracy. As the audience we feel very little need to quibble over the veracity or placement of story details at the cost of Iannucci’s personal comedic vision—such is the bargain of artistic license. But a moment of conspicuous fabrication during this same climactic scene draws us back into the film’s own unquiet conscience. We do not know who, in particular, read the charges at Beria’s actual trial. We do know, however, that they were by and large, trumped-up charges—of much the same nature as in any number of trials throughout the USSR’s Stalinist past, useful for removing instruments of power that had outlived their usefulness—and, effectively, false. In The Death of Stalin, these charges (read by Khrushchev) are basically unchanged, except for one: 347 counts of rape. Elsewhere, the film evokes Beria’s real-life proclivities for young girls with a characteristically equal measure of efficiency and ghastliness.3 According to research, his predation was well known in the Soviet leadership, and was in fact discussed during his trial; but the truth of these claims, like so much of the truth in this period, was irrelevant to the trial's outcome. The film’s radical condensation—of history and drama, of truth and fiction, of justice and vendetta, of heroism and villainy—stems from a more pervasive neurosis, to reassure the viewer (and, thusly, to reassure itself) of its protagonist’s paradoxically unquestionable virtue. It’s a neurosis that Iannucci’s robust cynicism manages to keep in check elsewhere in his work, the need to resolve an elitist world-view and a traditional dramatic structure: the mundane creep of liberalism.
“I will bury you in history!” Buscemi shouts ruefully to the burning remains of his vanquished foe, in another foreshadow, this time of Khrushchev’s Cold War bluster and the apocryphal hammering-of-the-shoe. With post-execution swagger in the crematory dusk, he looks more Tony Soprano than Mikhail Gorbachev. To any argument that remains, liberalism offers the final word: security. Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, played by Andrea Riseborough, returns from the edge of the film’s memory to anoint him with disappointment: “I never thought it would be you.”  In some sense—a sense relegated to personal temperament and palace intrigue—her judgment proclaims that Khrushchev has changed. But her role in the story (and that of her brother Vasily) has been ancillary, tonally welcome with her pointed British mannerisms and counter-punching wit, but narratively weightless. The Soviet Anastasia, a vague symbol of innocence, her sacrificial exile is as much a necessity to The Death of Stalin's logic as it is an afterthought.4
Collecting in the margins of the screenplay are metaphors for Stalin’s paternal hold over the nation, and the longing among his people for that hold’s return. The farcical atmosphere they suggest is largely matter-of-fact, down to the reintroduction of Orthodox bishops into the political texture of Russia, as though to replace the dead Socialist God. Iannucci can’t muster much from Stalin’s actual orphans, let alone his figurative ones, nor does he have much interest in the irony that his script prioritizes one rather conspicuously (that is, monarchistically) over the other. At its most confident, anyway, the film knows that the only possible response to the death of God is laughter, embodied nowhere more authentically than in Michael Palin’s Vycheslav Molotov, the true (re-)discovery of The Death of Stalin.
The Monty Python alum’s refined brand of round-the-bend-edness provides the perfect translation for the crisis of belief at the heart of The Death of Stalin, that is: a personal one. Molotov is an Old Bolshevik, old enough to have internalized, at the level of the unconscious, just what should be forgotten, what should be remembered, and how. As his reward, we learn at the film's outset, he's about to be purged. Stalin’s death spares him; in a reversal, Beria not only removes him from the feared arrest list, but reveals that his denounced and thought-dead wife Polina has been rehabilitated and released. But Molotov is a machine haunted by these old ghosts—of Lenin, of Stalin, of the Revolution and the Ribbentrop Pact, of the cycles of betrayal and recrimination. Through Palin, Iannucci offers the first new archetype in his own oeuvre: the politician for whom true belief is, in the long run, indistinguishable from madness. Like the Little Tramp in Modern Times, driven to psychosis by the indifferent mastications of the factory which produces his new society, Palin’s Molotov is both alien and tender. Molotov’s induction to Khrushchev’s conspiracy is as dramatically quickening as it is thematically satisfying: where Beria hectored Molotov for the inconsistencies of his doublethink, Khrushchev indulges his comrade's stopped-clock morality when it favors his moment to strike. Amidst comedy that, after all, falls flat as often as it succeeds, Palin delivers the funniest and most elegant speech in all of The Death of Stalin, guiding his bewildered fellow bureaucrats on a tour of the ideological maze that is his inner life—a tour that ends with great ceremony, exactly where it began.5 At the scene of Beria’s death, Molotov is the first to view the body, stepping with schoolboy ginger around the pool of blood, the blood which is now nothing less than a foggy reflection of the dream of his own revolutionary youth. “This is for the people!” he cries, and time is at last regained.
A shame, then, that Iannucci resists this humor so often elsewhere, but no great mystery. The uncomfortable, chaos-sewing contradictions inherent in a figure like Molotov are an inconvenience, at length, for a film that derives much of its comedic strategy from its director’s background in television (a strategy that prioritizes short-term rewards). As such, The Death of Stalin’s structural weaknesses often stem from its constituent strengths. Iannucci retains those more conservative expectations, despite the difference of medium, as a default: expectations that reliable performers like Tambor or Vasily Stalin’s Rupert Friend should toss off trailer-ready laugh lines at an industrial interval; that there be well-rounded plots A, B and C, even if their synthesis is less than the sum of its parts; that the longer the time we spend with a protagonist, the more robust (and more traditional) his dramatic psychology. On this last note, Khrushchev is the mirror image of Tucker in In the Loop, whose high dramatic intentions and self-derived evil confound—to their detriment—the more complex and far funnier impression of Tucker from The Thick of It.6 The cumulative effect of these two enjoyable but inconsistent films is a realization we may have known all along: that Iannucci works at his most subversive, and most indeterminate, not at the level of the episode, or feature, but of the series entire. The scale of cinema—a scale we're inclined to deem more liberatory than television—in fact, forces his hand. The need to streamline his own vision, ultimately, amounts to a clumsy proclamation of positive politics—of a politics which believes in the Nightmare of the Dictator, and in the Dream of the Reformer; of a faltering liberalism, which heaps the sins of the People on the former, and forgives all the sins of the latter, just so long as he promises never to wake us.

1. That the film’s prime mover is one such document, a link to an illicit liaison discovered—at last—soaked in urine, is a simple coincidence. The Death of Stalin was in the can before the 2016 election and, despite Masha Gessen’s thoughtful piece on the topic, the reasons for its ban in Russia seem more routine than specific. Suffice it to say that viewers hunting for allegories of the Steele Dossier and attendant scandalia will be disappointed. If anything, the portrait of Russia painted in The Death of Stalin is of a state at odds to meddle in its own affairs, let alone those of its adversaries.
2. The film was also finished before allegations of sexual misconduct on the set of the show Transparent cast doubt on the future of Tambor’s career. A sampling of the press for The Death of Stalin makes no mention of the troubling reality surrounding one of its major stars. So it goes that, even in democratic cultures, certain truths remain difficult to swallow.
3. The expressions of bewildered dread on the faces of Beria’s victims, shown as they’re guided in and lead away from his headquarters, are the darkest in all of The Death of Stalin. It’s a choice as ambitious in theory as it is ambiguous in practice: at what point does such a device in a comedy risk its audience’s complete withdrawal? How much, after all, should we laugh at The Death of Stalin? And how should we react when, as we may have feared, there is no Peter Lorre moment waiting for Simon Russell Beale—as death is carried out, chaotically, unceremoniously, do we not wonder how much of that ‘evil', the penchant for calculation and power dynamics, has leaped bodies from one host to the next? These are questions the film has more at stake in suppressing than in answering.
4. Khrushchev’s parting line to Svetlana could be a threat or a confession: “This is how people get killed, when their stories don’t fit.” It’s vague either way. The extent to which it offers insight into the film’s intertext—its adaptation from a French graphic novelization (by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin) of events told through the mist of semi-secret history; its reimagining of a man who must, to some degree, reimagine himself—is tantalizing but, ultimately, insubstantial.
5. For those on the contemporary left, there is a particular joy in Molotov’s specific flavor of political amnesia. It summarizes effectively (though probably unknowingly) a pernicious phenomenon among the young left: that of the tankie, the apologist for violence carried out in the name of ostensible left-dictatorships throughout the twentieth century, from Castro to Mao. Stalin is, naturally, their cause célèbre. Throughout The Death of Stalin, Molotov’s comrades meet his dogmatic chainsaw juggling with looks of bafflement that will be familiar to anyone who has spent sufficient time in any corner of the internet where tankies routinely gather.
6. The essence of Iannuccian humor is in a character’s ability to perfectly describe the catastrophe in which they find themselves, at the precise moment when it is impossible to avoid. Where Iannucci seems to trip up in his films, is in imbuing his protagonists with a moral agency that preempts this paralysis. In In the Loop, Tucker—stand-in for Labour strategist Alastair Campbell during his engineering of the so-called ‘Dodgy Dossier’ which helped foment the invasion of Iraq—is simply too capable to be funny. With Khrushchev, similarly, the future First Secretary's actions too closely resemble his benevolent intentions for there to be anything caught in the middle to laugh at.


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