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Movie Watches You - The Death of Stalin

There's no I in team, but there is a U in Gulag

Hey folks, I know this is way late, but it's been a rough week. I was in accident on the Santa Monica Freeway last week, and while I'm fine, my car was totaled, so I'm currently stuck in SoCal with no transportation. This has made my life infinity more difficult. I had planned to review Bohemian Rhapsody last week, as I'm a huge Queen fan, but I haven't been able to make it to the movies for obvious reasons. It's not been a productive week, and I've found that really frustrating, but I still wanted to get something out, so I wouldn't go two weeks without a post. So, I'm going to be reviewing a film that was released last year, but just recently made it to DVD/Blu-Ray. It had a limited release, so I'm guessing most people haven't seen it. I finally got to watch it, and I really want more people to see it, because it's worth talking about on so many levels. Mild spoilers to follow.

The Death of Stalin is a black comedy by Scottish filmmaker Armando Iannucci about… well… the death of Stalin. So quick background for those who aren't familiar with the historical context. Joseph Stalin was the communist dictator of the former Soviet Union from 1922-1953, and one of the worst people in the 20th century. While he was on the Allied side during WWII, that doesn't make him good. Stalin's rule resulted in the deaths of millions; most historians put the figure around 25 million. He would have people killed for any reason, and sometimes no reason. He was the first dictator who started his own "Cult of Personality," that Mao Zedong picked up and ran with, and that Kim Ill-Sung took to its absurd conclusion. He instituted a series of concentration camps known as Gulags that millions were sent too. His secret police would make raids in the middle of the night, and people would often just "disappear." Stalin ruled through brute force and fear, which ironically is what did him in. When he had a stroke, no one in his staff checked on him the next morning because they were so afraid of disturbing him and being killed. Furthermore, almost all of the competent doctors had been rounded up and were about to exterminated in an incident known as "The Doctors Plot." When he died, the doctors were ultimately set free.

If you know anything about Russian history, you know how this film will conclude. Stalin dies and Nikita Khrushchev (played by Steve Buscemi) ultimately takes control of the Soviet Union. This film is about the immediate power struggle in the vacuum that occurs when a powerful despot dies, and the comedy comes from the inherent absurdity of what happens when a bunch of yes-men who have done everything to stay alive, start plotting against each other, all while putting on a facade of unity.

This might be the darkest comedy I've ever seen. Mass murder is treated as a mundane occurrence, and people being executed in the background and/or just offscreen becomes a running joke throughout the film. It's a perfect example of the banality of evil, and Iannucci manages to somehow straddle the line between hilarious and horrifying. One minute you're laughing, and then suddenly you feel bad because you realize what you're laughing at. For example, Khrushchev comes off as kind of a silly fellow that no one really takes seriously, and you end up rooting for him almost by default. Then two thirds of the way through, we're given a brutal, sobering reminder of exactly WHY Khrushchev came out on top. And yet, you're still rooting for him because he somehow manages to be less awful than everyone else, with the possible exception of Zhukov (Jason Isaacs).

This film has no good guys, everyone is an awful person responsible for crimes against humanity and all kinds of evil. Some are just less awful than others. The head of the NKVD (Secret Police) is Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russel Beale) a psychopathic sadist and sexual predator. Some audiences thought the filmmakers went over the top to hammer home how evil Beria was. The truth is that Iannucci toned Beria DOWN from real life. The real Beria was almost cartoonishly evil, and there's a lot of that throughout the film.

It's hard to pick a standout among the cast as everyone is fantastic. Even characters who don't get a lot of development still have little quirks. If I had to pick one, it would probably be Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov, who in contrast to Isaacs usual scene-chewing evil characters, is a jovial ham who loves nothing more than trolling people, and medals, lots of medals. This was also toned down from real life, where the real Zhukov wore MORE medals than portrayed on film. According to an interview with Isaacs, they ran out of room on his outfit.

If you enjoy history, political satire or black comedy, I can't recommend this film enough. But make no mistake, this is not an easy film to watch. It's extremely uncomfortable laughing as innocent people are murdered in front of their families, while others are executed for something as simple as stuttering. You will either love this movie, or not be able to finish it. Unless of course you're a communist/Stalin apologist, in which case you'll hate it. But if you're either of those things, you suck, and I don't feel bad about it.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Gulags.

Side note, if you're interested in the history of the Soviet Union, I highly recommend the books by Anne Applebaum. Gulag and Iron Curtain in particular.

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