By Veer Sharma
‘Comedy’ in the modern sense is difficult to pin down, but has usually been reduced to that which causes a specific physical response. In the same vein as horror (fear), romantic melodrama (tears) and pornography (sexual arousal), it has its own generic sine qua non: laughter. Critics will regularly laud comedies as ‘side-splitting’ because surely the physical response is the clearest and most accurate example of the success of a self-identified humorous film? A comedy with few laughs, common sense dictates, is not a good comedy because it fails to fulfil its basic formal purpose. Walking out of the theatre after a screening of Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, one might reasonably therefore derive that – whatever its extraneous material – it wasn’t a very good comedy. Thankfully, this is incorrect.
Understanding the specific Iannuccian strain of British comedy stretches all the way back to his first acclaimed television work The Day Today, co-created by fellow satirist Chris Morris. Originally a radio show called On the Hour, the show satirised journalistic sensationalism using an eclectic mix of comic realism and bizarre surrealism that laid the foundations for The Thick of It, which propelled Iannucci’s style of tragicomic quasi-docudrama into the forefront of British satire. While Malcolm Tucker may fling innovative profanities to make the audience giggle, the comedy of The Thick of It derives largely from its fairly ‘straight’ and realistic style, with situations and people inspired heavily by the real inner workings of the British political system.
The Death of Stalin, which follows (roughly) the events surrounding Josef Stalin’s death in 1953 and the ensuing fallout among the ruling class of the Communist Party, is an even more integrated comedy, in the sense that the narrative is not a framework on which the gags are placed but instead the narrative is the comedy (compare Morris’s later satirical news show Brass Eye in which real public figures were integrated into the show without knowing it was satirical). The film forces us to confront that the horror of Stalinist Russia was (and is) – in just as many ways as it was tragic, dramatic or historic – comedic. Perhaps this difficulty in self-recognition on the part of the audience explains the confused reaction to the film, which, though well received overall, has been accused on one end of satirising too dark a subject, on the other end of not being biting enough compared to Iannucci’s usual standard. Yet both do the film a disservice. Though Iannucci and fellow co-writers Ian Martin (also co-writer on The Thick of It), David Schneider and Peter Fellows often teeter on the precipice of creating a full-blown historical tragedy rather than a comedy, The Death of Stalin is a remarkable fusion of forms, simultaneously cleverly comic and crushingly despairing. Every bullet parallels a farcical endeavour and characters crack wise even as they stroll past cells full of dissidents being executed; these are treated not as ‘matters of comedy’ so much as matters of fact.
This isn’t to say that the film has no elements of classical comedy. Irreverently transplanting the Russian setting onto a cast of British and American actors is genius – just another disparity the film exploits alongside the obvious disparity between public policy and private political backstabbing in the USSR. Rupert Friend’s alcoholic and excellently anarchic Vasily Stalin punctuates the story whenever it threatens to lurch too oppressively towards tragedy. And simply the spectacle of seeing high-ranking Soviet ministers calls each other ‘tits’ is hilarious. Yet even watching terror, as when a once imposing Lavrentiy Beria is gagged, thrown into a nondescript shed, ‘tried’ and immediately shot while pleading for life, carries a certain humorous element – an abrupt smirk at an abrupt end. In the same way the final shot – of Leonid Brezhnev glancing down at a newly empowered Nikita Krushchev as the onscreen text declares his usurpation by the former – marries the laughter, horror and cyclical nature of the narrative into a few tight seconds of awe.
Brilliant casting should be noted. Jeffrey Tambor as damp toady Georgy Malenkov; Jason Isaacs as nonchalantly hardy Red Army commander Georgy Zhukov; Michael Palin as blustering minister Vyacheslav Molotov and Simon Russell Beale as the Bond-villain-esque Beria – all these exude an enigmatic Britishness in a Soviet setting but also play into an interlocked character drama befitting a power struggle such as this one. Paddy Considine is incredible as a radio operator but noticeably underused, despite having been given top billing. The real star of the pack is Steve Buscemi whose neurotic and understated performance channels the black humour of Fargo and Reservoir Dogs into a surprisingly sinister Krushchev.
Perhaps I can understand some of the complaints regarding the subject matter, though I am irritated by all the commentators who never saw La vita é bella and splutter indignantly that comedic treatment would never be applied to the horrors of Nazi Germany. Perhaps I can sympathise with the complaints of some Russian viewers, already hard done by on the international stage, who have to deal with yet another western comic sifting through their national history like a panhandler and running away with the nuggets of gold they find. But I cannot deny the achievement here. The Death of Stalin operates on much the same level that gallows humour has historical operated in the type of totalitarian regime it mocks: laugh so you don’t cry. ‘Pain is funny as long as it’s someone else’s; we will laugh at the farce of power and even the dark reality behind’ it seems to say, and we agree, not out of cruelty but reality. The film – as well as its setting – is indeed, as the promotional poster claims, “A Comedy of Terrors”.