Title: The Death of Stalin
Rating: 4 Stars
Every now and then I see a movie that I swear was custom designed for me. For instance, about twenty years ago, there was a movie called Dick. It was a juvenile comedy about Watergate. There were inside references to such things as the taping over of locks at the Watergate complex, Deep Throat, and the 18 1/2 minute gap. At the same time, it was the story of a giggly teenage young woman that had developed a crush on Richard Nixon, writing his name repeatedly on her pee chee, and blurting out, in moments of complete silence, how much she loved dick.
Note that this movie came out twenty-five years after Watergate. I believe that the Venn diagram of people that would have simultaneously enjoyed the subtle and inside nods to the Watergate conspiracy and have a deep appreciation for sophomoric humor didn’t extend that far beyond me.
Now, I see that another movie has come out. It’s about the death of Stalin and the immediate chaotic fallout after his death. As with Dick, this is a comedy right smack dab in history geek’s wheelhouse.
I’ve read Montefiore’s The Red Tzar a couple of times now. Stalin’s reign holds an almost obsessive fascination to me. How does a country let this happen? Stalin ordered several purges during his time. He purged anyone that was even remotely a threat to him. He purged the original so-called Old Bolsheviks. He purged the small landowners (the Kulaks) that wanted to keep farming their own lands. He purged the army of its officers (which turned out not to be such a great move right before the start of WWII).
It was so simple. He’d pressure / torture someone to confess and name names. He’d then have those who were named arrested and repeat the process. Desperate to avoid torture, a person arrested would quickly confess to the most absurd crimes and then name as many names as they could come up with. Following this process, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and ultimately millions would ultimately be executed.
And then, of course, the torturers themselves would then be arrested and executed.
The movie starts at this point. Lists of people are sent out to be arrested. In his dacha, Stalin and his small cadre drink and make jokes. This cadre, Stalin’s inner circle (Beria, Krushschev, Malentov, Kaganovich, and a couple of others), possess enormous power but are aware that at any moment Stalin can yank that power away from any one of them and send him to his death. In fact, one of them, Molotov, unknowingly is on a list soon to be arrested. So, although they drink and laugh and shout joyously, they all do it while nervously eyeing Stalin. It’s much like the Twilight Zone episode of the six year old kid that has absolute power over all of the adults.
Later that night, Stalin has a stroke. He is not dead but he is incapacitated.
At first, they are all paralyzed. They are so used to living under Stalin’s thumb that they are at a loss of what to do. They’re afraid at first to even touch him (think of medieval times where it was a crime for a commoner to even touch a king). Even though he’s lying on the floor, comatose and incontinent, they debate the merits of bringing in a doctor. This situation is even more complicated by the fact that just recently many Moscow doctors have been arrested or executed as a result of a purge (the doctors’ plot).
Eventually, Stalin dies. Beria sees his chance. He makes his move to seize power. Will Krushschev be able to block him? The weak Malentov is technically the next in succession. Who will he support? Who will get the legendary General Zhukov’s, the leader of the army, support?
That forms the plot.
It is an entertaining and funny movie. The machinations of these previously toady sycophants trying to become the next supreme ruler of the USSR is absurd to watch. The actors (especially Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Steve Buscemi as Krushschev, and Simon Russell Beale as Beria) all do exceptional comedic work.
It kind of gets the fact right but clearly this is a comedy, not a documentary.
It is a timely movie for many reasons. First of all, think of the situation in Russia. Putin is, as I write this, about to win a landslide election. He has no significant opposition. Within the Russian government itself, there is nothing that appears to be a succession plan. In fact, it appears that not much happens without his approval. If he were to drop dead tomorrow, what would the Russian government do?
And it’s not like the US is in much better shape. Especially with the recent firings, Trump’s cabinet is a chorus of yes-men (and women) who occasionally make appearances together to compete in fulsome praise of the vision and talent of our great leader. Mike Pence goes to great lengths to be as subservient to Trump as the most pliable lapdog.
Let’s face facts. Our president is an obese man in his 70’s who does not eat well and counts golf as exercise. Would any of us be really all that surprised if he stroked out?
And what if he did? Imagine him prone on the floor and surrounded by Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, and Steve Mnuchin. Who from that sorry mess would you want to take the reigns and start issuing orders?
So, yes, it was a funny movie that I enjoyed watching. However, the fact that a comedy about an autocrat that died sixty years ago caused me to reflect upon our current political situation was, to say the least, unsettling.