Wednesday, 25 October 2017

The Death of Stalin

I’m fond of a quote from Mark Twain to the effect that the truth is always stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make some kind of sense. One side effect of this insight is the realisation that historical drama is going to simplify the hell out of things. And just as Victoria and Abdul seemed to telescope a 14 year long con into a couple of years, The Death of Stalin compresses the queasy six months after Stalin’s death into a couple of days of uneasy hi-jinks that resolve in the shadow of Stalin’s funeral. Arguably this is for the best, since no-one in their right mind would want to spend six months in the company of Stalin’s inner circle.

Obviously, Stalin dies. Just like in real life, he doesn’t die anything like soon enough; the ideal time for Stalin to have died would have been before his christening. Slightly less obviously, Laurenti Beria dies. I am not giving in to my natural assumption that anyone who’d go to see The Death of Stalin would naturally know that the winner of the scorpion conga was Khrushchev and the big loser was Beria. It says so very very much about Stalin’s coterie that Khrushchev was head and shoulders the good guy in any face-off over who was going to run the Soviet Union.

Beria, now. Beria. The climax of the movie has Beria beaten, gagged, dragged into a barn and subjected to a kangaroo trial where he pleads for his life before being shot almost casually by the first soldier to get his pistol into frame and having his body incinerated dismissively by Marshall Zhukov. And by the time it all happens, all any normal person could possibly think would be “damn, that didn’t hurt him anything like enough.” Simon Russell Beale gives us Beria as an irredeemable monster, driven by cruelty, lust and ambition and yet astonishingly he still makes Beria look better than he was in real life. If you just looked at Beria’s day job, you’d see a man who murdered people to stay in power, and did it cruelly because it was more fun that way. It’s when you look at how he spent his time off that you realise that he was trying to be normal at the office; he spent his free time raping women and children and strangling the ones who struggled; the survivors were sent off with bouquets of flowers to create the pretence that it had all been in fun. Beria was one of those little gifts to the world who could fuel a thousand arguments over whether it would be moral to wipe out a whole village to remove any chance at all that Beria might have been born from someone living there.

So, fun guy. Iannucci doesn’t pull any punches in depicting Stalin and co; they’re resolute no-marks, united in their mediocrity and willingness to do anything to stay in power. This, of course, freed the movie up to cast a blizzard of talented pure character actors, one homelier than the next, and all chosen for at least a passing resemblance to the originals. The standout is Steve Buscemi’s Khrushchev, simultaneously a coarse scumbag full of raucous stories about war crimes he’s enjoyed, and a man just self-aware enough to realise that giving into his own ambitions might be the least worst solution to Russia’s problems. Buscemi excels at clever creepiness, and he’s perfectly cast.

Of course he’s not the most fun character; that crown goes to Jason Isaac’s Marshall Zhukov. Like everyone else, he’s a broad caricature, but he’s larger than life and his genial abrasiveness comes across as the clarity of a life-time’s worth of life and death decisions rather than the weaselly impulse to self preservation driving the rest of the politburo. Thirty years of Stalin had eroded everything decent in soviet political life; by 1953 the only survivors were the ones who would do anything to survive, and equally do nothing unless they were sure it was safe. Zhukov bursts into their company like a brass band at an autopsy and somehow lifts the mood no matter what he does.

Other bits and pieces; Olga Kurylenko is in it, and for the first time in my experience she gets through a whole movie with all her clothes on, doesn’t get killed and has a proper speaking part that lets her act. Which it turns out that she can. Which cheered me up tremendously at the credits. It almost made up for how bad I felt about Rupert Friend, having spent the whole movie thinking that Luke Evans was doing a surprisingly good job of Vassili Stalin. It would have been a surprisingly good job for Luke Evans; if I’d known it was Rupert Friend I’d probably have been expecting him to do more with the part.

Anyhow; minor history lesson. The movie is true to the character of the real players and so it’s psychologically true, albeit somewhat grotesque. It’s incredibly true to the spirit of the time; we really get a sense of the fear hovering over every person in the Soviet Union as Iannucci cuts away from the plotters to the ordinary people being dragged to their doom as each whim plays out. There’s an extended opening bit where Stalin whimsically asks for a recording of a concert after it’s ended; the desperate radio station scrambles to do the concert all over again for the recording, and my heart was in my mouth as a struggle broke out over the record just as it was being handed over to the MVD. I was convinced it was going to be broken, and that everyone would wind up in the Gulag. That’s some scene-setting, right there. So, the tone is right. The facts; not so much. In reality it took three months of manoeuvring and fearful plotting before Khrushchev could put together a coalition to nobble Beria. The end was nothing as rushed and improvised as the movie’s climax. Life doesn’t have to respect the aristotelian unities.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the whole movie is the way in which Iannucci is unblinking about the sheer horriblenesss of, well, everything, and yet somehow able to make it all bleakly hilarious. 

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