To appropriately quote an iconic catch phrase from Monty Python – the most well known outing of Michael Palin, who is one of the actors in Death of Stalin:
"And now for something completely different."
I am delighted and honored to present a GUEST REVIEWER! Stuart White – former journalist – the author of several amazing books, and (Art of the Warrior: The Story Sun Tzu) (Black Jacques) screenwriter of a number of brilliant movies (Pendragon) and a frightening and intriguing TV show currently in pre-production, and MOST important (at least to me) my very dear friend.
I PROUDLY PRESENT TO YOU BY STUART WHITE:
The Death of Stalin – A Commie Comedy of Terrors
By Stuart White.
Imagine you’re a producer or screenwriter. You’re sitting by a big pool in Hollywood while a cigar-smoking movie mogul listens to your movie pitch.
"Well it’s about Stalin’s death in 1953, and the murder and mayhem and stuff that went on afterwards."
Big Mogul pulls on his cigar. Exhales:
"Stalin? The Russian dictator guy who killed millions of his own people? Starved them to death? Sent them to labour camps in the Siberian GULAG? That the guy?"
"That’s our baby. Now we open on him getting drunk with the Politburo and they’re all having a great giggle about the dying screams of executed political opponents, and then they play practical jokes, sticking tomatoes in each other’s pockets and squashing them.
"They watch endless movies after dinner, including John Wayne films which Stalin adores, but after they’ve finally gone Stalin keels over from a cerebral haemorrhage, peeing himself in the process.
"And even though his armed guards hear his collapse they are too terrified to go into his room, and he lies there all night."
Movie mogul blows smoke rings, and now there’s a hint of irritation:
"Yeh, yeh. Cut to the chase."
"Then the maid discovers him the next morning. The rest of his criminal gang, Krushchev, Beria – the head of the secret police – Malenkov his deputy – they turn up but are too terrified to call a doctor.
"Not surprisingly because the Soviet leadership has either killed or put in prison all the country’s best doctors on the grounds they suspected them of trying to kill Stalin.
"So his colleagues stick Stalin on a bed and leave him for four days debating what to do, before finally calling in medical guys dragged out of prison for the occasion. And on about day four Stalin finally pegs out."
The mogul’s attention wanders and he starts to ogle a skinny starlet Weinstein-style; you’re losing him..
"Yeh – so – our main man is dead. That’s the end of the picture, right?"
"No, you don’t get it. Stalin’s dead by about page 8 of the script. The story is afterwards. All his buddies are terrified of each other becoming leader, in case the new one has each of THEM killed."
Big Mogul is a trifle puzzled, "Like the Godfather is killed so it’s who takes over the Mafia – right?"
"You got it! Stalin gets embalmed, and shown in an open coffin while all the leaders weep crocodile tears and plan each other’s downfall."
"A Russian Godfather? I don’t know – "
"No, there’s more. We’ve got torture scenes. We’ve got executions! We’ve got sons betraying their own fathers to the secret police. We’ve got one of the ministers even slandering his own WIFE who is in prison – until to his astonishment she’s released.
"This film has the Three T’s: TERROR, TORTURE, TYRANNY. It’s Orwell’s 1984 only real. And true."
You sink back exhausted. The producer takes another puff on his Cuban and looks pointedly at his Cartier tank watch.
"All seems a little gloomy to me. And there’s no zombies, I like zombies, and – this is too serious a movie for me."
"No…no… read the title page of the script – IT’S A COMEDY!"
Big Mogul sits bolt upright in his sun lounger and spits his cigar sizzling into the pool.
"A comedy? Are you out of your freaking mind? Get the hell outta here! What next – Auschwitz the Musical?"
Unless it seems, the pitcher is Armando Iannucci the creative Scottish-born comedy genius of Italian heritage who came up with the stunning VEEP, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and brought to the screen half a dozen more comedy classics (in Britain at least).
So it got made. The Death of Stalin. A comedy.
Now having read more than a little about the rule of that psychopathic megalomaniac Stalin and a reign of terror that sent millions to their deaths, I confess I couldn’t see the humour – even the black humour – in a film about his demise and its bloody aftermath.
And for the first fifteen minutes, despite the insane guffawing of some bearded throwbacks sitting in front of me – I thought, "This is the least funny thing I’ve ever seen."
The casting and the actor’s portrayals didn’t help. Lavrenti Beria, the paedophile-rapist secret police boss was in real life physically a bald, weaselly little runt.
Nikita Krushchev, eventual leader of the Soviet Union was a bald, burly peasant type.
But they cast the English theatrical actor Simon Russell Beale, who is naturally bald and extremely rotund as – Beria. They cast thin, lithe, cosmetically- made-bald Steve Buscemi, as Krushchev.
So for a few minutes I admit I was confused thinking Krushchev was Beria and vice-versa.
Then there’s Monty Python star Michael Palin as the Russian leader Molotov. As you watch him you can’t help cast your mind back to the Dead Parrot sketch.
"No, this is a Norwegian blue…it’s not dead, it’s resting."
And the accents. No-one even attempts a Russian accent. Steve Buscemi is outright, no-holds-barred stars and stripes American. "Hey, who the hell put a go****ed tomAYto in my pocket?"
Jason Isaacs as the pugnacious Soviet military man Marshal Zhukov, has an English Northern accent so blunt he sounded like one of the Yorkshiremen in another Python sketch, where each one recalls growing up in such poverty they ate broken glass and walked 195 miles a day to school in the snow, then adding, "And it were luxury, bluddy luxury."
Then there’s an English TV comedian called Paul Whitehouse playing wily Anastas Mikoyan, who sounds off like a chirpy bus conductor on a red London Routemaster issuing tickets as he heads for the East End.
But the most incongruous accent of all comes out of the moustachioed mouth of Stalin himself; an astonishingly bad verbal impression of Dick van Dyke doing an astoundingly bad verbal impression of a Cockney in Mary Poppins.
It’s an utter dog’s breakfast, a veritable Babel of confusing accents.
But there IS a standout performance by that fine American actor Jeffrey Tambor, who plays the hapless and terrified Stalin deputy, Georgi Malenkov.
His bad wig is priceless, his hang-dog look and seemingly hesitant performance, looking this way and that before he makes even the smallest decision, is a master-class, even if this Deputy Chairman of the USSR appears to come from St. Louis, Missouri. The other standout is Jeffrey Russell Beale as the lascivious, murderous creep Beria.
But always in my mind as the movie unrolled was: never mind where’s the beef? Where’s the comedy?
There’s one scene where they roll the paralysed and dying Stalin onto a bed and two of the bearers end up UNDER Stalin.
Oh, wow, hilarious, what farcical stuff – yet the two swamp people in front of me thought it hilarious.
Or when Malenkov confesses to Zhukov that he thinks Beria is a danger, believing Zhukov will sympathise. But Zhukov in his broad Northern accent says he will have to report that remark to the Politburo. That could be a death sentence.
The eyes of Tambor’s Malenkov go wide with sheer terror, and his multiple flabby chins wobble with nerves. Next is the Lubianka prison and a bullet through the back of his neck. Then Zhukov laughs and prods him, "You shudda seen your face." He was putting Malenkov on.
Oh, excuse me for not rolling in the aisles. A man thinks for a brief second he has been betrayed and will soon die a horrible death. Then you say, in effect, "Just kidding." Maybe we need a laugh track here.
And an egregious error – (and a spoiler alert if you’re not acquainted with the period.) Beria, who has spent two decades sending people to death and slavery get his just desserts.
But as he’s dragged off for what we see as a bloody summary execution (oh, and another laugh clue: we feast on a shot of his burning body after he’s been shot in the head. What a rib-tickler.)
But as Beria is dragged away, bound and gagged, face bloodied, Malenkov, who Beria was going to have killed, is still sticking to pointless Soviet committee rules, shouting that Beria deserves a trial, insisting: "He was one of us!"
In reality Beria got his absurd show trial, was inevitably found guilty of betraying the Soviet Union, but also with some ingenuity, of rape too.
It was nine months later before he was finally executed, shot in the face after a gag had been stuffed in his mouth to stifle his terror-stricken and vain appeals for mercy.
Yes, this whole movie is simply a larf-a-minute.
To my amazement Homeland’s super-spooky-spook actor Rupert Friend plays Stalin’s drunken son, Vasily. And badly.
But he does get an actually almost funny moment. He insists on making a speech on the Kremlin balcony at his father’s funeral, against the wishes of the leadership. He even stays sober for it.
But as he starts to extol the virtues of his warm and cuddly dead Dad, and compares the peoples of the Soviet Union to a collection of sad little bereaved bears, fighter jets scream over Red Square and make his words inaudible.
His is the worst performance of the whole movie. AND we’re supposed to find funny him talking about a plane crash, caused by his incompetence, that killed an entire hockey team. I studied the audience for that one. Not so much as a titter.
And to be the worst performer takes some doing in a cast that includes Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, played by Andrea Riseborough, in the manner of a rather strident and at times hysterical English girl from the posh Home Counties of England who looks as out of place in Moscow as a Siberian babushka would in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Ok. Now here’s the weird part. I ending up LOVING this movie and I’d recommend you see it.
Truly, honestly – no joke – and no wordplay intended.
Why? Well…I can’t truly say. I didn’t believe ANY of the characters, yet the story is compelling, and if you needed a reminder – or to be informed for the first time – just how bad Communism was at its murderous apogee in the Soviet Union as short a time ago as the Fifties, well here it is.
And given Iannucci’s comedy street-smarts perhaps he’s actually saying in his less-than-coded way: "How can you treat these people and events as other THAN farce? Dangerous, homicidal farce but farcically ludicrous nonetheless."
And Buscemi as a Moscow Mafiosi?
Well, weren’t these people the Mafia of international politics with the largest country in the world for their turf?
Zhukov as a blunt-speaking, no-nonsense, I call-a-spade-a-spade Yorkshireman? Well perhaps the better to understand the rough-edged military genius who actually arrests Beria and roughs him up in the process.
Palin as mild-mannered nonentity Molotov, the man who in the 1930’s thought up the Molotov Cocktail – something that as military historians will tell you is not something to be ordered at your local upmarket hotel bar with a Vodka-Martini and twist for your companion. Well why not?
Weren’t these senior Communist apparatchiks frequently faceless, Janus-like two-faced straw men?
So go. Take the kids. And let them draw their own conclusion about the movie. Mine is it’s a comedy not of errors but of terrors; a blackly humorous attempt to show what can result when you let a country fall into the grip of totalitarianism.
And my confused view of the movie reminds me of an old joke told by a gagmaster in his prime:
"When I grew up and told them I wanted to be a comedian they laughed. Well, let me tell you, they’re not laughing now."
And I’m not laughing after this movie, and I didn’t laugh once during it – but it did make me think.
And make me want to read more about Stalin, that Georgian – yes, he was Georgian not Russian – red Tsar and about those murderous times.
But don’t tell your kids – or your wife, husband, or date – that the movie you’ve got tickets for is a comedy. Then if they come out splitting their sides saying, "That was SO funny," well, then Iannuci wins.
I wager you’ll have a humdinger of a conversation about the movie and the crazed world of the court of the Red Tsar, over the burgers and shakes afterwards.
And of course I mean Georgian as in the Soviet Republic of Georgia, rather than as in the US state of Georgia in case there’s any confusion. Stalin’s home-town was not Atlanta. LOL………