"Funny Anti-Communist Satire but Too Much Foul Language"
What You Need To Know:
THE DEATH OF STALIN is a small but opulent production. It’s very funny and brilliantly directed, scored and acted. Also, while it’s supposed to be a satire, not an historical document, it seems to get the general details right. Best of all, it has a very strong anti-communist worldview. In one scene, an anti-communist character mentions her faith in God and Christ’s salvation. Sadly, THE DEATH OF STALIN contains abundant foul language that prevents it from attaining total greatness.
THE DEATH OF STALIN is a hilarious satire about the jockeying for position among the leaders of the Soviet Union after the brutal tyrant Joe Stalin’s sudden death. THE DEATH OF STALIN is brilliantly directed, scored and acted, with a strong anti-communist message that shows absolute power corrupts absolutely, but it has way too much foul language, which prevents the movie from achieving true greatness.
The movie opens in Moscow at a concert hall where an orchestra is just finishing a Mozart concerto. Right before the finish, the concert hall director gets a call from Stalin himself to call him back in 17 minutes. After a funny bit of dialogue between the director and his assistant about when exactly did Stalin call (the assistant doesn’t remember, and the director wasn’t watching the clock), the director calls Stalin back. Stalin orders the director to record the concert, but the concert had just finished. The director frantically tries to stop the audience and orchestra from leaving.
Cut to Stalin at his country estate just outside Moscow, where he’s partying with his inner circle. Among those present is Beria, Stalin’s brutal head of the secret police, the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB. Also present are Nikita Khrushchev, who leads the Communist Party in Moscow, and Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s apprentice and presumed successor, among a couple other high Soviet officials. At the makeshift dinner table, Khrushchev (played by Steve Buscemi) is bragging about an incident involving grenades and German POWs at the Battle of Stalingrad during World War II. It soon becomes clear that every man is extremely deferential and careful about their interactions with Stalin, who suddenly orders the men to come with him to watch a cowboy movie from America in his estate’s little movie theater. (It’s a historical fact that Stalin would watch American cowboy movies with his inner circle, but the movies had no subtitles.) During the meeting with his inner circle, Stalin gives Beria a new list of people to murder and arrest.
Back at the concert hall, the orchestra’s female pianist refuses to play the Mozart concerto again for the hall’s exasperated director. He has a private conversation backstage with her, where she reminds him that she loathes Stalin because he had her family murdered. The director offers her an extra 10,000 rubles to play the concerto again, and the pianist settles for 20,000. However, during the rush to begin playing Mozart again and record the concert, the conductor falls, and a fire extinguisher falls on his head, knocking him unconscious.
Cut to Beria’s secret police and military officers making arrests with sounds of gunshots off screen revealing that they’re also executing people on the spot. These scenes are followed by a scene where some officers knock on the door of an older married couple just about to go to bed. Frightened for his life, the husband says goodbye to his wife. However, it turns out that the police have just come to take the man back to the concert hall, so he can replace the unconscious orchestra conductor. At the same time, a group of weary and bewildered peasants enter the concert hall to take the place of the concert goers who had already left before the director could stop them from leaving.
The concert starts again with the peasants staring in bewilderment at the orchestra. One woman is concentrating on the knitting she was doing when she was rounded up.
With the concert finished, the director is ready to hand over the recording to an army lieutenant, but the female pianist wants to stuff a little personal note to Stalin into the record sleeve. The horrified director can only imagine what insults to Stalin that the pianist has written. They have a tussle over the record with the note inside, but the lieutenant stops them. He admonishes them that they’re late with delivering the concert recording and coldly warns them he’s putting that fact down in his report.
The recording is finally delivered to Stalin while he’s alone in his study. He starts the recording on his record player. As the music begins, he notices the pianist’s note, which has fallen to the floor. Sure enough, as he starts to read it aloud, it’s an angry diatribe against him. Stalin starts to laugh raucously, but suddenly he gets a pained look on his face and collapses to the floor. The two soldiers guarding the door to Stalin’s study hear the thud. However, they’re too afraid to open the door and interrupt their “fearless leader.”
The next morning, the breakfast maid finds Stalin’s body. Beria gets a call about Stalin’s collapse and starts to rush over to Stalin’s estate. Meanwhile, Khrushchev, who’s still in his pajamas, sees some commotion in the courtyard of the Kremlin where he and his wife live. So, he decides to skip breakfast and get quickly dressed.
The inner circle is soon gathered around Stalin’s body. Stalin still seems alive, but barely. They carry him to his bed, then have a crazy argument about whether they should call a doctor. One of the men says, however, that Stalin has killed or sent all the good doctors in Moscow to the Gulag. (Historical note: Months before his death, Stalin had conducted a purge of doctors in Moscow when some Jewish doctors were falsely accused of trying to assassinate him.) They send a female officer to lead a search for some doctors. Cut to an old doctor walking his dog in the town square. He sees the woman and a group of other soldiers exit a military vehicle, and he starts running, but they soon catch up with him.
As a group of doctors, including the old doctor, hover over Stalin’s body, Stalin wakes up and starts pointing. “He’s pointing to his successor!” one man shouts, but when it seems as if Stalin’s pointing at Khrushchev, they decide he’s pointing at a painting of a female peasant with a pitcher of milk. So, the men start making up all sorts of weird Russian, communist theories about what the painting means, and why Stalin is pointing at it.
Shortly thereafter, Stalin finally breathes his last. His inner circle starts arguing about what to do.
In the midst of this chaos, Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, and crazy son, Vasily, learn about their father’s sudden illness and death. The inner circle debates what to do about the crazy son, who begins shouting all kinds of conspiracy theories. They also try to outdo one another in comforting Svetlana, but she’s too upset. Meanwhile, Beria starts trying to control the whole situation. This starts to cause some resentment among the others. However, the inner circle seems to agree that Malenkov should take over as leader, but he shows himself to be indecisive, vain and weak. At one moment, he’s agreeing to one thing, then immediately agreeing to the exact opposite when someone says something slightly critical or even just looks like he’s about to say something critical.
Meanwhile, Khrushchev grows increasingly suspicious of Beria, who clearly wants to remain in control of the secret police and the army, while propping up Malenkov. When the pompous, slightly disgraced hero of World War II, General Zhukov, arrives for Stalin’s funeral, Khrushchev sees his chance. He starts plotting against Beria while trying to use the power he’s been given to organize Stalin’s funeral and run the trains running in and out of Moscow.
All the comical chaos eventually leads to a chilling conclusion as Khrushchev moves the major chess pieces to benefit himself and ensure a violent demise for Beria.
THE DEATH OF STALIN is a small but opulent production. It’s very funny as well as brilliantly directed, scored and acted. The talented Steve Buscemi plays the calculating Khrushchev as a comical, chubbier version of his gangster character in BOARDWALK EMPIRE. The other actors are funny as well, especially Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov, Michael Palin as Molotov, Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, and Simon Russell Beale as Beria.
THE DEATH OF STALIN is a satire. So, it makes no pretense of being a totally accurate depiction of what happened and what was said during Stalin’s death and its aftermath. Thus, it isn’t true to life, and it telescopes or condenses some events. However, it seems to get the details mostly right about the various characters involved, including who Khrushchev collaborated with to get rid of Beria and turn Malenkov into a figurehead. The only false note perhaps is the movie’s depiction of Stalin’s son, Vasily, an alcoholic ladies’ man who probably was more afraid of his father and his friends than anything else.
Ultimately, THE DEATH OF STALIN works extremely effectively as a satirical attack on the Soviet Union, Stalin and his sycophantic supporters, communist tyranny, and government tyranny in general. Despite the reforms that Khrushchev and his friends, and even Beria, tried to institute after Stalin, these men were still brutal leftist dictators. To its credit, the movie shows not only that power tends to corrupt, but also that absolute power corrupts absolutely. A welcome surprise is a bit of dialogue from the female pianist who says she’s not afraid to die because she believes in God and in her salvation through Christ.
The big problem with THE DEATH OF STALIN is that it has abundant foul language, including many “f” words and several strong profanities. The excessive foul language prevents THE DEATH OF STALIN from achieving true greatness because it’s a sign of lazy writing, directing and acting.
THE DEATH OF STALIN also contains a scene where a man is shown being shot in the head, plus a scene where several other prisoners are executed. There are also some brief sexual comments. For example, Beria’s attackers angrily accuse him of raping political prisoners and even pedophilia. This content and the movie’s foul language warrant extreme caution.