This movie confused me a lot. Not the story – the story is straightforward – but what the director was trying to go for. It is obviously a political satire, but at the same time it is so serious and dramatic that I didn’t know how to respond to it.
So, the story is about the death of Stalin and how the communist party committee tries to deal with that shattering event and whatever comes next. All the senior party members are bickering idiots who only try to save their own skin and it is played to hilarity. A sort of Der Untergang (Downfall) from 2004, but comedic. Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Beria (Simon Russell Beale) are the worst. Khrushchev never stops talking and Beria is a creepy little monster. All of them swim in hypocrisy in trying to uphold the party line, but they are mostly posing towards each other. It is funny most of the time.
But then there are moments of violence and inhumanity that characterized the Soviet regime and these moments are occasionally played for laughs when they are depicted as “typical” and exaggerated, but at other moments they are quite serious. And the contrast between these revolting moments and the hilarious bickering of the party members just doesn’t fit together. Beria for example is a little creepy troll and there is a certain humor in seeing him intimidating his colleagues, and the whole film is so obviously a satire, but then the next scene shows an implied rape, and now I’m confused whether to laugh about any of this.
To understand what this director is all about, I turned to his previous film: In the Loop (2009).
If there’s one thing to say about In the Loop (2009) is that it is frantic. Shot like a faux-documentary, we follow around government officials from one committee to another, basically making a big mess of everything they are doing in a complete orgy of awkwardness, backstabbing and misunderstandings. Much like The Death of Stalin. Meanwhile, there is the foulmouthed Malcolm Tucker who tries to keep his minister following the official line in his public communications. Tucker, played by Peter Capaldi, is absolutely hilarious and his cussing is of an intensity and inventiveness to measure itself with Full Metal Jacket’s sergeant Hartman.
A brilliant satire on politics, basically policy comes about through people playing word games and getting the better of each other, and then everyone interpreting things in their own way, until finally you got to stop and wonder how we ended up where we are. At the end of Burn After Reading, JK Simmons’ CIA superior says something that easily summarizes the twists and turns of In the Loop as well: “What did we learn, Palmer? I guess we learned not to do it again. I’m fucked if I know what we did.” And in the middle of it all there are two coarsest men from Scotland swearing everyone into the ground.
See, the satire was much clearer in this film and it is because of Malcolm Tucker as the obvious source of hilarity. I could have used with some more of that in The Death of Stalin. I spent two hours watching a well-made film with great acting, great dialogue, well put together scenes, good production design and music, and I just didn’t really see the point. I guess the confusion of policy from In the Loop is also an important theme in The Death of Stalin, so from that higher perspective that is something interesting that both films try to accomplish.