The Death of Stalin is a historical comedy about a small contingent of serial rapists & mass murderers jockeying for power after its titular Russian political shakeup. Like the British comedy Death at a Funeral, much of its humor is derived from the tension of buffoons fumbling in their duties amidst a dead-serious crisis that requires putting on a stoic, sober face for the public. Every major player in Stalin’s (semi) loyal gang of power-hungry monsters are stripped of any & all mythic mystique in the process, depicted onscreen as dangerous nitwits who are scrambling for a plan (by comedic actors like Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, real life shithead Jeffrey Tambor, etc.) instead of some strategic masterminds who know exactly how to achieve their goals. Humanizing these revolting fascists thorough goofball humor is a tonal risk that might invite audience sympathy to people who do not deserve it, but somehow The Death of Stalin achieves the opposite effect. By interpreting Stalin’s cronies as real people, a recognizable boy’s club, the film makes their millions of executions & untold numbers of rapes even more of a shock & a horror. There’s a comedic tension in watching violent buffoons getting in over their head in a tense political crisis, but we always see them as the walking, talking grotesqueries they actually were in the process, perhaps even more so than ever before.
It helps that The Death of Stalin takes its duties as a period film seriously. Its grim color palette & orchestral score recall the Nazi bunker drama Downfall. There’s humor in how Stalin’s kill lists can have names added by one false joke or comment and how they’re casually issued out like office lunch orders, but the brutality they signify is never treated lightly. The film thankfully doesn’t dwell on on-screen depictions of sexual assault, but it’s coldly honest about that evil’s wpervasiveness in this fascist culture. Mass protests recall the incredible large-scale crowd scenes in big budget epics like Doctor Zhivago. When Stalin dies, he soils himself the way any fresh corpse would. The recent German comedy Look Who’s Back was admirable for drawing parallels between Hitler’s fascist ideologies and the recent far-right political swing on issues like immigration, but it was a satirical mode achieved by resurrecting the dictator in an outlandish sci-fi plot and transporting him to modern times (and modern comedic sensibilities). The Death of Stalin reverses that dynamic by exporting modern sensibilities to the historic context of a period drama. Actors speak in their own American & British accents, treating the farcical humor as if it were an (especially violent) exercise in sketch comedy. The atmosphere & dramatic circumstances surrounding those performances are a dead serious contrast that drives the comedic tension by not being comedic at all, a brilliant choice in aesthetic.
You wouldn’t have to squint too hard to draw a parallel between the mass firings & buffoonish disfunction in the current Trump administration and the political chaos left in the wake of Stalin’s death in this film, but I’m not convinced that was entirely its point. If anything, The Death of Stalin is refreshing in its honesty about how much worse the modern-day Trumps, Putins and Kims of the world could potentially be if they continue to drift in their current direction. If there’s any commentary on specific current politics in the film’s central conceit it’s tethered to the idea that the dynamics of men in power never change and only get more dangerous the longer they’re allowed to go unchecked. As amusing as it is to watch these violent dolts assert their authority in a situation where their authority is at best vaguely defined, it’s also outright harrowing to see that recognizable humanity result in so much abuse & bloodshed. The Death of Stalin is a darkly funny historical comedy with political implications that will remain relevant long beyond current, topical concerns. It’s not exactly classroom-friendly material (it’s loaded with “locker room talk,” to borrow a parlance), but it is a great educational tool in establishing the universal, pedestrian traits of the people (as opposed to the mythic figures) who commit the world’s most devastating atrocities