Katy Burns: Hey, things could be a lot worse

  • (From left) Dermot Crowley, Paul Whitehouse, Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor and Paul Chahidi in a scene from “The Death of Stalin.” IFC Films via AP

  • This image released by IFC Films shows, from left, Steve Buscemi, Adrian McLoughlin, Jeffrey Tambor, Dermot Crowley and Simon Russell Beale in a scene from “The Death of Stalin.” (Nicola Dove/IFC Films via AP) Nicola Dove/IFC Films via AP

Monitor Columnist
Sunday, April 15, 2018

Feeling a little down about the way our country is being run? You think it’s going to hell in a handbasket? Whatever exactly a handbasket is. Or maybe you think the national scene is just fine now, but for eight years you were miserably unhappy, convinced the country was going to hell in that same mysterious handbasket, and you’re fearful your present joy might vanish?

Well, whatever your political inclination is, I have a suggestion to improve your spirits immediately.

Hustle down to Red River Theatres – apparently the only venue available now – and catch the The Death of Stalin. It’s a retelling of the last days of the Soviet Union dictator’s life and the immediate aftermath of the passing of both a person and the reins of power. Just a hint: Neither went well.

The critically acclaimed film paints an acidulous portrait of the brutal and murderous Joseph Stalin’s iron grip on his country and the venal and downright evil men with whom he surrounded himself and who assiduously helped him retain his power.

And it is – in the blackest possible way – very, very funny.

As director Armando Iannucci (the creator of HBO’s “Veep”) and his writers portray it, Russia in 1953 is a bleak and joyless land, an epically grim place where people live in a permanent state of low-level terror. The film’s in color, but the predominant palette is gray.

Stalin has out-schemed all his rivals and is in complete control, his power assured by his penchant for killing those who – for reasons often obscure or frivolous – incur his displeasure. Everyone in his immediate orbit, including cooks and soldiers standing sentry outside his personal study, seems to live in a state of perpetual fear.

And then Stalin, alone one evening in that study in his large country dacha, is suddenly felled by a massive stroke, which no one knows because his retainers – even hearing a thud from within the room – are afraid to intrude. He is discovered the next morning. And then, as he lies unconscious on the floor in a pool of his own urine, a doctor still isn’t called until his panicked underlings have all arrived to discuss the situation.

Not that they found a doctor immediately. It seems that because of something called the “Doctors’ Plot,” allegedly a scheme by some doctors to topple him, Stalin had banished virtually all of Moscow’s physicians to Siberia. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up.

And so Stalin died. Ingloriously, ignominiously. And quite appropriately.

The film then spends its time portraying – savagely and hilariously – the farce that ensues as his underlings jockey for primacy even as they plan his elaborate funeral. They are wonderfully portrayed by a stable of brilliant actors, including Steve Buscemi playing Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev – who is remembered, at least by older Americans as a bullying and uncouth peasant who delighted in pounding his shoe on a table to get attention – is the closest thing the film has to a hero. To use the word exceedingly loosely.

Especially when compared with the frightening head of the secret police, Lavrentiy Beria, brilliantly played by Simon Russell Beale, who looks more like someone’s image of a kindly, cuddly grandfather – until one sees his cold-as-ice eyes. He has a taste for young girls and entirely too keen an interest in personally shooting prisoners.

Jeffrey Tambor has a great time playing Georgy Malenkov, a toadying creature who was Stalin’s apprentice and briefly – very briefly – his successor. When discussion of the funeral came up and it was said that Stalin’s only son, Vasilii – who was a perpetually drunken lout – wanted to speak at the funeral, Tambor-as-Malenkov instantly said “No problem.” Within seconds, after seeing the glares of disapproval from his compatriots, he said – with exquisite timing – “That is, no! Problem!”

Vasilii (played by Rupert Friend) truly was a disaster. He was at one point in charge of the Russian Air Force’s hockey team. And it was lost in a plane crash in a snowstorm. The son was so afraid to tell his father that he instead hired a whole new team to replace them. They were – surprise! – terrible. And yes, the film manages to squeeze in that little factoid.

Vyacheslav Molotov, a Stalin lieutenant who’d denounced his own wife as a traitor and was discomfited to have her return after Stalin’s death, is a star turn for former Monty Python member Michael Palin.

He is also the unwilling namesake of the notorious Molotov Cocktail, a lethal missile composed mainly of a flammable liquid in a jar with a fuse, so named by Finnish soldiers as an insult for his role in dividing up the Baltic states and Poland in the notorious non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

The wily Khrushchev won the top spot after tumultuous months of wrangling and after maneuvering the execution of Beria. Khrushchev was ousted in a bloodless coup in 1964 and was named a “pensioner of special significance” with both a Moscow apartment and a country dacha. He lived long enough to write his memoirs – which were smuggled into the West – and died in 1971 of a heart attack.

He was the first party general secretary to survive the end of his office.

The film is hilarious, subversively brilliant. See it. And however bad – or good – you think everything here is now, remember: Things could be so, so much worse.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)