The Death of Stalin

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That punch in the air moment

Before the inevitable “buts” appear, let me just nail the fact that this is an excellent movie — intelligent, witty and showcasing some seriously bravura film acting. There are no buts in the statement that if it opens in a cinema near you, you should see it. If it doesn’t, travel.

As the title suggests this is about that punch the air moment in 1953 when Joe Stalin dies and a Monsters Ball breaks out as the blood-soaked dotards on the Soviet Politbureau duck and dive to seize his crown as general secretary.

I suspect that most Socialist Review readers will get a particular frisson of pleasure from the scene where Stalin dies suddenly and violently in a puddle of his own excretion. I know I did.

The writer/director Armando Ianucci has pitched all this quite beautifully, maintaining the tricky balance between realism and the darkest black humour. We are never allowed to forget that these people really are monsters but it is all too obvious that they are also as thick as Stalin’s dying excrement.

This balance presents a challenge to the cast, but even the comic actors like Paul Whitehouse and especially Michael Palin do not play it for laughs. They play it to chill. And holding the film together is a superbly reptilian performance from Simon Russell Beale playing Stalin’s chief executioner Beria.

But there is a “but”. Armando Ianucci is the talent behind TV show The Thick of It, which exposed the smoothie-chops New Labourites as a gaggle of deluded incompetents bullied by Alastair Campbell (aka Malcolm Tucker), a foul mouthed political gangster.

His US-set series Veep is an even more mordant satire of American politics — Selina Meyer (first vice president, later president) is a self-obsessed air-brain who is every bit as cruel as and even more useless than Stalin’s apparatchiks.

Veep has been one of the glories of American TV for six brilliant series — but it has recently been cancelled because with the election of Donald Chump political satire has transitioned into reality TV.

At this stage in his career with an armful of Emmy awards Iannucci can make any medium budget film or TV pilot he likes. He has always had a lacerating ability as a writer; to that he has added a growing panache as a director and he now has the industry leverage to raise a budget.

It warms the cockles of an aging Trotskyist heart to see these Stalinist butchers ridiculed on screen. But beyond that I do wonder what the actual point of this movie is. Is there anyone in the world today who thought Stalin was anything but a boorish and inhuman scumbag? Did anyone out there live with the delusion that Khrushchev, Malenkov or Beria were Teddy Bears?

Why is Iannucci making movies about events that happened 64 years ago when we need him to be ripping into the abundant number of mini-Stalins and Poundshop-Berias who infest our political life today?

So, excellent work, Armando. But next time tell me something I don’t already know. Please.