Filled with dark humor, rich characters, and capturing the reality of the 1950s era Soviet union, “The Death of Stalin” is a fast-paced, consuming, and very palatable take on a historical topic that few others would have chosen to work on.
The movie starts the night of Stalin’s death, and we get to see Stalin at his fearsome end, a tyrant. He was brutal, callous about human life, temperamental, but also human. During the short period while he is alive, we see that the man has ultimate power, and wields it over all, killing people for the trivial, and making no secret of it.
After his death, it’s a no holds barred race to see who can grasp power, and while those who know Soviet history can guess the film’s outcome, it brings to light several lesser known characters from the period. It makes a fascinating and funny character drama steeped in darkness and brutal political violence. Jeffrey Tambor plays Georgy Malenkov, a bumbling and unstrategic clown who assumes leadership under Stalin’s rigidly pre-assigned chain of command. Steve Buscemi plays Nikita Khrushchev, the wiser, more sedate, and deeply strategic member of the council of ministers. From the death on, we see the life and death strategy playing out as Lavrentiy Beria, head of the pre-KGB era intelligence service the NKVD, wields his control of the security services to terrorize and try to eventually consolidate the sole power of the council for himself.
Without revealing any further the plot line, it can be said that this movie was a fascinating look into the history and power struggles surrounding the leadership of the Soviet Union, an extremely relevant topic when one considers the struggles within committee based communist regimes against power consolidation, also present in China, and Vietnam. There are serious discrepancies with the historical reality of what took place, with the actual characters sometimes more interesting and vibrant than their film portrayals.
Georgy Malenkov, theatrically portrayed as a fool who has no concept of how to maintain power, speak, or control situations, was, according to English diplomats, the most eloquent, composed, and intelligent of the men on the presidium. Khrushchev by contrast, was not the most strategic of the bunch, perceived as open and quick, but not deeply intelligent. Rather he was good-natured and loud, but ignorant.
Malenkov’s ousting by the council was in reality more about ending Malenkov’s one man centric rule, after the committee had watched the excesses of Stalin. The group ostensibly acted to preserve committee power, rather than placing a more “stable” Khrushchev in control as was portrayed in the film. Malenkov in reality was a deep ally of Lavrentiy Beria, head of the NKVD, not displayed in the movie. This may have actually contributed to Beria’s downfall in 1953, taking place before Malenkov’s ousting, which ultimately occurred in 1955.
The real political opening that led to the coup against Beria and Malenkov had nothing to do with firing at civilians, as portrayed in the film, but was instead caused by the alleged softness of Beria towards the West. Beria’s alleged aim was to increase autonomy to several Soviet republics, and trade East German sovereignty to the West in exchange for an eaasing of tension in the cold war, as well as a massive aid package from the US. This in the context of 1953, less than 10 years after the end of WW2, when the country was still recovering from the destruction.
Meanwhile, Georgy Zhukov, only appearing at the end of the film to back Khrushchev’s coup ousting Malenkov, played a more major personal role and had deep personal and combative relationships with several men on the presidium. He was actually a deep rival of Stalin, who as a veteran of WW1 felt threatened by Zhukov, another war hero who brought the Soviet Union its WW2 victory. Zhukov was viewed by many, not as a brute, but as a military genius. Zhukov possessed a deep competence in the new era of mechanized warfare. He was deeply admired by Eisenhower, and toured the Soviet Union with the supreme allied commander after the war, continuing to exchange letters for years. He was also personally attacked by Malenkov during Stalin’s reign, after the end of WW2, accused of “bonapartism,” and was quickly demoted, before suffering a heart attack. Zhukov also had a close relationship with Nikita Khrushchev, with Zhukov repeatedly defending Khrushchev from false accusations during WW2. Therefore, Khrushchev trusted him and chose Zhukov to lead the coup against the NKVD and Beria. Beria had, around this time, arrested two subordinates of Zhukov, and had shamed him by discovering that Zhukov had collected German loot for personal gain. Zhukov, by aiding the coup d’etat against Beria, achieved his revenge against the enemy who had been plotting against a fellow head of armed power, and also paved the way for his own political rise.
Excluding the history, the movie is also very well directed. The cast is nearly entirely from the UK, with many recognizable faces on screen. Sets, costumes, and appearances are all well constructed, and aesthetically portray a convincing image of the period. Most of the settings are in government buildings and settings, though, and of well documented people from the period, but the vibe is reminiscent of the best Mikhail Bulgakov novels, deeply Soviet, and mocking of the crudeness and black humor present in the Soviet era.
In summation, this movie is funny at many points, even at its darkest. It is intelligent and well constructed, stimulating and well flowing. It has very black moments, where one laughs at things one certainly shouldn’t, and also a couple of moments where the action is unclear and the characters motivations and thoughts are not identified. It is deeply enjoyable, almost certainly worth a watch, is one of the better movies made recently, and certainly one of the few black comedies about this fascinating period in Soviet and world history.
Staff writer: Ari B