Movie Review: The Death of Stalin

I’ve e watched this movie twice, which I don’t do often anymore, and I’ll probably watch it again soon. At the time of this writing, it is on Netflix. I should probably buy it.

What is The Death of Stalin about? The historical power struggle in the USSR after Stalin’s sudden death. It’s also a comedy. If you know anything about Communism in practice, this is perfect.

It’s a hilarious movie, dark witty comedy at its best. Everyone is some kind of terrible but it works. there are no heroes; there is a protagonist. I’ve known the gist of Soviet power struggles for some time and knowing makes the movie even better.

Considering the horrors being perpetrated on screen and in truth, how can this be a comedy? How could you portray these butchers (they all are, except perhaps Zhukov, depending on your definitions) in a funny way?

Because, while you may need to break a few eggs to make an omelette, communism breaks a lot of eggs and yet there’s still no omelette. The hallmark of these governments, especially the USSR, was/is still to present themselves as highly capable and competent but they were not. Witness the early scene in the movie where they discuss how they’ve killed all the good doctors. The USSR married, somehow, starry-eyed Utopianism, ambition, raw brutality, and massive incompetence to produce something so absurdly stupidly cruel it beggars belief.

The power struggle was a vicious cycle, reading rather biblically pretty much everywhere on the ladder: this bastard killed this bastard, who was killed by the next bastard, who was killed by the bastard after that…and caught in the middle of this like some sort endlessly expendable mass of McGuffins are the people of Eastern Europe. Except they weren’t set pieces, they were people. The movie portrays this very well in its bit parts, and the black sitcom at the concert, and the scenes of the NKVD arrests, and the final management of Stalin’s household, and the riot at the funeral. It’s clear where everyone stands. It’s clear why it’s horrible. It’s clear that the whole thing is absurd to the point of comedy.

The acting is magnificent. While mercifully no one attempts a Russian accent, the performances are perfect. Steve Buscemi as Nikita Kruschev portrays both fearful simpering lackey and ambitious ruthless schemer well, while not being much more competent than anyone else in my opinion. He did not fix the USSR’s slow motion collapse when he took over, or do anything to halt the decay of Russian culture that had been inflicted upon it by the USSR.

The most special thing is Jason Isaacs magnificent turn as Field Marshal Zhukov, by far the most heroic of the lot on screen and in history. Worthy of note is that he was never allowed to become one of the major players, as Zhukov was very much a Russian peasant in his goals and attitudes. The Party in his eyes was to be a servant of the people, though in truth it never was from its inception. I think it is not wrong to respect and admire Zhukov. A good man in a bad place, perhaps. That’s a sad thing. Maybe it mattered and kept some worse thing from happening.

The Death of Stalin can be found where you find movies. If you’re in the mood for some dark humor and a history lesson of a period and place too often ignored, give it a watch!

Published by kathrynzurmehly

I am, among many other things, an Army vet and a freelance writer.

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