film Tragedy Plus Time

Shane Danielsen on Ar­mando Ian­nucci’s ‘The Death of Stalin’

The Monthly (Australia) - - APRIL 2018 - Shane Danielsen on Ar­mando Ian­nucci’s ‘The Death of Stalin’

“An­i­mals with a cul­ture,” a (Pol­ish) friend once called Rus­sians. Which struck me as rather harsh, though I knew what she meant. For­mi­da­ble as their artis­tic achieve­ments are, there’s an un­de­ni­able sav­agery to the Rus­sian tem­per­a­ment – the re­sult, I sup­pose, of a life lived at the thresh­old, both ge­o­graph­i­cally and ex­is­ten­tially. Gary Shteyn­gart, him­self an émi­gré, wrote of “the log­i­cal im­pos­si­bil­ity of a place like Rus­sia ex­ist­ing along­side the civ­i­lized world”, and its not-quite-nor­mal­ity hits you at ev­ery minute there, as nu­mer­ous “Rus­sian” clichés are proved dis­arm­ingly true: the taxi driver who can quote from Ler­mon­tov and Pushkin; the drunk in the street hum­ming a pas­sage from Tchaikovsky. Things to cling to against the howl­ing cold, the deep, all-de­vour­ing dark­ness be­yond their cities’ lights. I re­mem­ber, the first time I went to Moscow, see­ing old women stand­ing in the long tun­nels lead­ing to the Tver­skaya metro sta­tion, hold­ing posters of Stalin and weep­ing – ac­tu­ally weep­ing – for what they had lost. Not the 20 mil­lion or so lives he’s be­lieved to have ex­tin­guished; for the man him­self, the cruel and ca­pa­ble fa­ther of mod­ern Rus­sia. (Though to be fair, this oc­curred dur­ing the early years of Yeltsin, al­ready a no­to­ri­ous soak. One’s rep­u­ta­tion could only profit by com­par­i­son.) How, you might ask, is any of this a source of amuse­ment? “Tragedy plus time” is the stan­dard for­mula for com­edy – but how much tragedy, ex­actly? And after how long? Writer-di­rec­tor Ar­mando Ian­nucci grap­ples with th­ese ques­tions in his ex­cel­lent sec­ond fea­ture, The Death of Stalin, based on a French graphic novel of the same name (by Fa­bien Nury and Thierry Robin). A Glaswe­gian satirist, Ian­nucci has been re­spon­si­ble, in whole or in part, for a num­ber of the Bri­tish come­dies I’ve loved most in the past quar­ter-cen­tury, from BBC2’s The Day To­day and Know­ing Me Know­ing You with Alan Par­tridge, to his scabrous West­min­ster par­ody The Thick of It, the pre­cur­sor to his later, rather more fa­mous HBO hit Veep. Great as those first two shows are – and I some­times think The Day To­day is my favourite TV com­edy ever – it’s with the lat­ter ve­hi­cles that he seemed to find his metier: as a foren­sic ob­server of po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tion, delu­sion and men­dac­ity, the Sue­to­nius of our age. This time, co-writ­ing with long-time col­lab­o­ra­tors David Sch­nei­der and Ian Martin, Ian­nucci sticks fairly closely to the ac­tion of the comic – be­gin­ning, just as it does, with the fa­mous but prob­a­bly apoc­ryphal story of a Moscow ra­dio orches­tra scram­bling to re-cre­ate a per­for­mance after Stalin re­quested a copy of a broad­cast that some stu­dio tech­ni­cian had care­lessly for­got­ten to record. The mu­si­cians are hastily re­con­vened, and a makeshift au­di­ence pulled in from the street. A re­place­ment con­duc­tor is sum­moned – even as his neigh­bours are be­ing ar­rested across the hall. And at last the pi­ano con­certo is played again, this time with the tape run­ning. But the fe­male soloist (played by Olga Kurylenko) is a dis­si­dent, the daugh­ter of a cou­ple mur­dered in one of the purges, and takes a mo­ment to slip an ac­cusatory note in with the record­ing for the great man to read. “Josef Vis­sar­i­onovich Stalin,” she writes, “you have be­trayed our na­tion and de­stroyed its peo­ple. I pray for your end.” Alone in his study, Stalin reads the note, chuck­les at its au­dac­ity – and has a heart at­tack, and dies. When an es­pe­cially large ves­sel sinks, many small craft are taken down with it. The rest of the film de­scribes, with grim amuse­ment, the hours and days that fol­low, as an ar­ray of sub­or­di­nate Sovi­ets, from an in­dig­nant Nikita Khrushchev (played, im­prob­a­bly but well, by Steve Buscemi) to the vain, weak Ge­orgy Malenkov (Jef­frey Tam­bor), at­tempt to out­wit one an­other and seize the reins of power … and avoid wind­ing up dead in the process.

Per­haps his smartest de­ci­sion here is to have his cast re­frain from us­ing any­thing re­sem­bling a Rus­sian ac­cent.

Cu­ri­ously, Amer­i­can col­leagues have seemed far less en­am­oured by the re­sult than Bri­tish and Aus­tralian ones – not be­cause they lack a sense of irony (the stan­dard, and mis­taken, an­swer), but be­cause they con­sider the subject mat­ter some­how inap­pro­pri­ate. “It’s like the Holo­caust,” one critic splut­tered, after the film’s pre­miere in Toronto last Septem­ber. “You couldn’t make a com­edy out of that, ei­ther.” (For what it’s worth, the Rus­sian govern­ment ap­pears to agree: the film has been banned there, with one mem­ber of the cul­ture min­istry’s ad­vi­sory board declar­ing that it “des­e­crates our his­tor­i­cal sym­bols: the Soviet hymn, orders and medals, and Mar­shal Zhukov is por­trayed as an id­iot”. Tellingly, though, the of­fi­cial com­plaint was that it con­tained “in­for­ma­tion whose dis­sem­i­na­tion is pro­hib­ited by law”.) My own re­sponse was that the Holo­caust was some­thing un­prece­dented in hu­man his­tory: a sys­tem­atic process of ex­ter­mi­na­tion that pretty well de­fies on­screen rep­re­sen­ta­tion. (This is why the re­cent Hun­gar­ian Os­car­win­ning Son of Saul was so ef­fec­tive: sug­gest­ing with­out quite re­veal­ing what’s oc­cur­ring be­yond the edges of the frame.) Whereas the crimes of Stalin, while no less aw­ful,

were ap­pallingly typ­i­cal in their de­tails: the squalid prod­uct of a vast bureau­cracy, a pop­u­la­tion’s blind be­lief in the ef­fi­cacy of power (it­self a han­gover from cen­turies of tsarist rule), and a tyrant’s hunger for ab­so­lute con­trol. The statis­tics are for­mi­da­ble, of course: 20 mil­lion dead is hardly a num­ber to sneeze at. But then, Rus­sia is a big place. Though po­si­tioned at a his­tor­i­cal turn­ing point, The Death of Stalin is es­sen­tially about of­fice pol­i­tics, and in this sense no dif­fer­ent to Veep – or for that mat­ter to Ian­nucci’s pre­vi­ous fea­ture, his 2009 Iraq War satire In the Loop. All that’s changed is his tech­nique. Pre­vi­ously, he sought a tone of hec­tic verisimil­i­tude, con­veyed through over­lap­ping di­a­logue and a dart­ing, hand­held cam­era; watch­ing, you had the sense of spy­ing-upon rather than ob­serv­ing the ac­tion. This film is far more com­posed and con­ven­tion­ally shot. Its pac­ing is more mea­sured. Even the ex­trav­a­gant pro­fan­ity – a hall­mark of Ian­nucci’s work – is scaled back, though there’s no short­age of poi­sonous, memorable lines. (“That fucker thinks he can take on the Red Army? I fucked Ger­many. I think I can take a flesh-lump in a fuck­ing waist­coat.”) As ex­pected, there are some ter­rific, if broad, sup­port­ing per­for­mances: Ja­son Isaacs steals ev­ery scene as Mar­shal Zhukov, leader of the Soviet forces at the Bat­tle of Ber­lin (and speaker of the line quoted above); Ru­pert Friend is ter­rific as Stalin’s drunken son Vasily; and Michael Palin makes a wel­come re­turn as the hap­less Molo­tov, doggedly loyal to the dead dic­ta­tor with­out real­is­ing that he was him­self on a list to be ex­e­cuted. A writer first and fore­most, Ian­nucci delights in craft­ing elab­o­rate, ever-so-slightly sur­real di­a­logue, and let­ting tal­ented ac­tors have their way with it. Per­haps his smartest de­ci­sion here is to have his cast re­frain from us­ing any­thing re­sem­bling a Rus­sian ac­cent, in­stead sug­gest­ing their var­i­ous ori­gins and sta­tus through va­ri­eties of mostly Bri­tish speech. Thus, Stalin – a “coarse” Ge­or­gian – is played as a cock­ney, while Zhukov is a bluff York­shire­man. But, ul­ti­mately, the film be­longs to Si­mon Rus­sell Beale, as the vile Lavrenti Be­ria – long-time head of the NKVD (the Soviet se­cret po­lice), and an un­re­pen­tant tor­turer and rapist. Though ter­rific in the TV se­ries Penny Dread­ful, as the ef­fete but qui­etly coura­geous

an­ti­quar­ian Fer­di­nand Lyle, Beale has strug­gled to find film roles that con­vey his ex­tra­or­di­nary power as a stage ac­tor. Here he’s at last given a part wor­thy of his tal­ents, and he makes the most of the op­por­tu­nity. Hand­ing a list of names to a sol­dier, Be­ria pauses to point at one line. “Shoot her be­fore him,” he mur­murs, “but make sure he sees it.” To­wards the end, after try­ing in vain to rea­son with Stalin’s hys­ter­i­cal daugh­ter, Svet­lana (An­drea Rise­bor­ough), he turns away from her, and his eyes grow cold and dis­tant. The mo­ment is lit­tle short of chill­ing.

“Shoot her be­fore him,” he mut­ters darkly, “but make sure he sees it.”

Al­ready ni­hilis­tic, the film’s tone dark­ens even fur­ther as it en­ters its fi­nal act, and the logic of suc­ces­sion un­rav­els and the con­spir­a­tors’ ac­tions be­come more des­per­ate and un­pre­dictable. Some Rus­sian sol­diers en­ter a room just as Zhukov is stag­ing a coup – and pause, the hor­ror show­ing on their faces. “Sorry, com­rades,” one mut­ters. “Wrong room.” As they turn and exit, Zhukov looks to his near­est lieu­tenant. “Go and kill them, will you?” he says qui­etly. The sol­dier nods and fol­lows the men out. This, more than the re­ports of protest­ing crowds slaugh­tered in the streets, or the stricken faces of Be­ria’s vic­tims, is the real hor­ror un­der­lin­ing the film: that the dif­fer­ence be­tween liv­ing and dy­ing can be re­duced to some­thing as ap­par­ently in­con­se­quen­tial as open­ing the wrong door at the wrong mo­ment. Not a laugh-line – it’s de­liv­ered al­most as an aside – it is nevertheless the clear­est and best ex­pli­ca­tion of the film’s pitch-black world­view. De­spite its set­ting, The Death of Stalin also feels un­com­fort­ably per­ti­nent in light of our cur­rent cir­cum­stances. Don­ald Trump is no au­thor­i­tar­ian dic­ta­tor (though I have lit­tle doubt he’d like to be), yet is so mon­u­men­tally vain, crass, buf­foon­ish and ig­no­rant it beg­gars credulity – and many of his con­frères are hardly less im­prob­a­ble. Never mind Ian­nucci: even the most ac­com­plished satirist would strug­gle to con­ceive a char­ac­ter as car­toon­ishly vul­gar as Anthony Scara­mucci, as sin­is­ter as Stephen Miller, as obliv­i­ously self-re­gard­ing as Ben Car­son. Yet here we are, in a dark hour, stuck with our own Krem­lin’s-worth of ve­nal, un­scrupu­lous pricks; this is our tragedy. But time will pass, it will. One day, some­one shall laugh at this.

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