I was surprised by how true to events this dark comedy was. Granted not everything was historically accurate and probably the conversations didn’t happen exactly as depicted, but the broad historical strokes surrounding Stalin’s death were spot on.
This comedy includes a stellar cast playing the different members of the Central Committee. The Central Committee, the rigidness of Soviet ideology, and Stalinism are perfect for satire. The movie plays up the utter indecisiveness of the committee, the brutality of the Stalin era, and the stupid adherence to bureaucratic procedures.
The movie portrays people of the Stalin era as utterly terrified. (They probably were given Stalin’s reputation.) As a concert concludes, Stalin calls to demand that the recording be sent to him as quickly as possible. The only problem is that no recording was made. To prevent certain death, the sound booth operator orders the audience back in their seats and the concert played again. Half of the audience already left, so peasants are brought off the street to ensure that the acoustics (read: number of bodies) in the room are as close to the original concert as possible.
The recording makes it to Stalin who removes the record from the record sleeve only to discover an anti-Stalin note from the famous pianist included. He collapses from what later was deemed a cerebral hemorrhage. His brutality—which scares others into doing nothing—actually prevents him from being helped until hours and hours later.
The two guards outside his room hear him collapse but decide not to investigate—Stalin would have them killed if nothing was wrong. They continue to stand guard. In the morning, they let a servant in to serve him breakfast. She discovers Stalin on the floor. But he is still not helped.
The members of the Central Committee are called and arrive at the scene one by one. Beria is the first to arrive and mysterious ransacks the place to find and destroy presumably incriminating papers. After the Central Committee arrives, we see the first instance of paralysis from the bureaucracy that was Stalinism. They leave him lying on the floor in his own excrement as they try to determine what to do.
Should they get a doctor? Wouldn’t that get them killed if Stalin came to? Didn’t they round up and kill all of the good doctors in the country? Yes, but there are still bad doctors around. Well, wouldn’t Stalin kill them if he discovered that they called bad doctors to care for him? Well, if he dies, then he wouldn’t know they were bad doctors. And if he lived, then the doctors were good, right?
They set out to round up various doctors, herding them into a van and driving them to Stalin’s dacha. The doctors, scared to death, give their assessment. Would Stalin recover? No. Only he did. Briefly. And then he really died.
The absurdity continues with the Central Committee unable to make decisions. When they do, the decisions must all be unanimous.
And the conniving! The Central Committee was thick as thieves and just as backstabbing. Little clicks and cabals form, plotting and strategizing how to outmaneuver each other.
The movie takes the tragedy that is Stalin’s Russia and turns it into a farce. After Stalin’s death, all jump in their individual cars to leave the dacha, with each blocking each other’s way. Eventually, the car carrying Stalin’s body leaves first. Khrushchev laments that he ended up in the last car to leave.
Beria, the ever-cool power behind the throne, has his security forces replace the Army throughout the city. Men in uniforms hand their guns to other men in uniforms and change places. Later, Field Marshall Zhukov helps initiate a coup of sorts. Then we see the opposite happen; the Army returns and the security forces hand over their guns and change places.
Malenkov takes control as Stalin’s replacement but is so wishy-washy that he is easily controlled by the others. He is a bit unsure and constantly looking for reassurance from others.
It is decided that he will have his photo taken with the same little girl that Stalin did in a famous photo. The search is on to find the girl. (Never mind that the ensuing years since the photo with Stalin was taken—the little girl is no longer little.) They do eventually find the “girl” and decide that um, they need a little girl that looks like her, not the real her since she is grown up.
Stalin’s children appear but are controlled and manipulated by the members of the Central Committee. Beria and Khrushchev take turns sucking up to Svetlana, who is eventually banished to Vienna. Her brother, the drunken, uncontrollable Vasily, disrupts but is allowed to give a speech at the funeral.
Molotov does not appear to be the steely strong man that I imagine would have an incendiary device named after him. A mousy, soft-spoken man, he hatches a plot with Khrushchev and Kaganovich in the back of a car, but only agrees to follow through with it if all members of the Central Committee agree—because Stalin opposed factionalism. The next day, Khrushchev leads him to believe that everyone is on board and the coup proceeds.
The dialogue is witty but quick. You can easily miss the humor as it flies by. Pairs of Central Committee members connive together but closely watch the others that they also know are conniving. At one point, Khrushchev is running back through the woods where he was in consultation with another committee member. “How”, it is asked, “can you run and plot at the same time?”
When Khrushchev, Kaganovich, and Molotov are the in the back of a car plotting a coup, the premise was so absurd and surreal. At one point, Kaganovich exclaims, “I’ve had nightmares that made more sense than this.”
The Death of Stalin is not your run-of-the-mill comedy. It is dark, it is satire—one might even call it historical comedy, akin to historical fiction. Bits are true, other things happened differently, probably still other events are completely fabricated. It is a dark comedic look at the death of Stalin when everything changed and at the same time nothing really did.
The main characters in the USSR changed but the stage and story stayed the same. As if to belabor this point, the movie closes with a shot of Brezhnev seated behind Khrushchev, Brezhnev who would eventually push Khrushchev out of power and replace him as leader of the Soviet Union. History repeats, or at least rhymes.