‘The Death of Stalin’ – arguably all the more accurate and honest for not pretending to be either

DeathOfStalinA few people have asked me to give my take on the film The Death of Stalin, so here are my thoughts, in no great depth or particular order. First of all, at its most basic, I thought it a very good film, extremely funny, but even darker in its humour than I had anticipated. Jason Isaacs is a wonderful genially thuggish Zhukov, but the real star, if that’s the appropriate term, was Simon Russel Beale’s mesmerizingly ruthless Beria who is also, in a way, one of the most honest figures around. The corrupting influence of terror is evident throughout. Frankly, it takes someone like Armando Ianucci, whose humour so often is based on tiptoeing up to the limits of taste and then deliberately stepping over that line, to write this.

Of course, it is not a biopic and doesn’t pretend to be a documentary. The timeline is compressed to fit months of scheming into a week or so leading up to and right after Stalin’s funeral. Stalin’s daughter was not whisked out afterwards by Khrushchev. And so on: there are all kinds of concessions made in the name of the story. Personally, though, I don’t think that is at all a problem: quite the opposite. First of all, and this is something Simon Jenkins has recently written about in the Guardian, much pseudo-historical film is really just as much in the myth-making business, simply with more pretension and less honesty. He especially talks about All the Money in the World, based on the kidnap of John Paul Getty III, Darkest Hour on Churchill, and The Crown on Queen Elizabeth II, but there are so many more examples. However much we – rightly – decry the new bombastically nationalist and propagandistic turn in Russian film making with such ‘epics’ as Crimea (Romeo-and-Juliet-meets-annexation) and Panfilov’s 28 (fictional-Soviet-diehards-hold-off-nasty-Nazis) – let us not forget the extent to which American audiences have for generations been told how they pretty much won WW2 by themselves, Brits have been fed a sugar-coated image of ‘Blitz spirit’, and so forth. Fictionalising history is more honest: it makes no claims to an accuracy very few films really embody.

Stalin-Beria

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

But also I felt that through the fiction, The Death of Stalin did a first-rate job of conveying the macabre spirit, the feel of the times. The terrified paranoia, the constant scheming, the degree to which everyone was vulnerable, the easy re-invention of history. One of the of the brilliant aspects of the film’s Beria is precisely the way he uses yet also mocks the self-justificatory compromises of the others. He is a ruthless cynic and knows it, owns it; the others are (while less personally repugnant) willing to work within that system , all the while pretending to some higher moral or political cause. There is an interesting moment when Svetlana, assailed on all sides by politicians trying to use her for their own purposes, asks Beria why she should trust him, and he says she shouldn’t, that she should ‘trust nobody” – but adds that she should remember that at least he told her that. Maybe this is the highest level of honour in such a toxic environment…

It’s macabre, sometimes a little slapstick, always sharply written and observed – very well worth watching. And roll on the day Ianucci writes the film of the Putin years…

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2 Comments

  1. …a very good review…

    Reply
  2. I just watched it myself, great film. I brushed up a bit on the events and characters on Wikipedia beforehand. I’d recommend it to anyone thinking of watching it, or who has done so, but isn’t already very familiar with the subject. Khrushchev in particular is a much more interesting character than I’d ever have realised.

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