The Death of Stalin: Can we really laugh at tyranny?

Despite recent efforts of restitution in Russia, Josef Stalin is widely considered to be one of history’s greatest monsters.

Although he modernised the Soviet Union and played a huge part in defeating Adolf Hitler in the second World War, Josef Vissarionovich Stalin ruled over his people with an iron fist and was personally responsible for the deaths of millions of his countrymen. His successor, Nikita Khrushchev (played by Steve Buscemi in ‘The Death of Stalin’), denounced Stalin in a secret speech 3 years after his death for his practices of “physical annihilation”, which is thought to be a reference to the leader’s purges and terrors, which are estimated to have killed up to 30m people.

Armando Iannucci’s new film ‘The Death of Stalin’ tackles the dictator’s final moments, and the subsequent power struggle amongst the members of his court, and it’s prime Iannucci territory. The Scottish filmmaker has tackled the in-fighting of British and American politics with ‘The Thick of It’ and ‘Veep’, but Stalin’s Russia feels like a very different proposition, and it begs the question: is this topic of which we should be making fun?

Credit where credit’s due, the film tackles the horrors of Stalin’s court head on, switching from farcical situation comedy to the unflinching brutality of rape and murder on the turn of a rouble. Iannucci admits the subject matter is problematic, but says it’s all about how you approach it.

“It’s not about topics we shouldn’t make jokes about,” Iannucci tells Yahoo in the video above.

The Death of Stalin: what really happened on the night that forever changed Soviet history?
The Death of Stalin: what really happened on the night that forever changed Soviet history?

“It’s about how you approach them in terms of the comedy. What are you trying to say, if you take on an ostensibly ‘serious’ issue?”

Michael Palin (Vyacheslav Molotov) agrees, noting that framing is everything.

“It’s how you do it, and put it in context,” the Monty Python star adds. “If you just extract things… and just make jokes about the violence involved, then i’d be worried about that. But if you’re also looking at the chaos and the bungling that goes on among powerful people, which can in itself be appallingly funny, and I think that’s the secret to this.”

The film never shies away from showing the executions and murders, and the rendition of “enemies of the state” performed in Stalin’s name, and it’s a stark contrast the absurdist in-fighting of the eight main players looking to step into Stalin’s shoes. Acclaimed Shakespearean actor Simon Russell Beale, who plays Lavrentiy Beria, one of Stalin’s cruellest courtiers, says his director always remained sensitive to the real-life traumas they were portraying.

“Armando made it clear that he didn’t want to forget the consequences,” Beale told Yahoo. “Of the serious consequences of the actions of these people, and I don’t think we ever did really. The end of the film is not very funny at all.”

Beria is one of the main players jostling for power in the vacuum created by the death of Stalin, and in real life (spoilers) he was executed for treason just months after Stalin’s death. His death is shown at the end the film, and in a moment that perfectly encapsulates the film’s gallows humour, Jason Isaacs’ Marshall Zhukov diffuses the tension with a grim one-liner delivered with a thick Northern brogue.

Palin, of couse, is no stranger to controversy thanks to his involvement in Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’ which was banned in a number of countries (and, weirdly, Bournemouth). He says it’s important for comedy to continue satirising tricky subject matters, and face the consequences either way.

“You don’t know how controversial [films] are going to be until they’re made and they go out, to be honest,” Palin explained, “When we made ‘Life of Brian’ we primarily made a comedy, and nearly every scene in that made us laugh. This is, I suppose, primarily a comedy, so you can’t really tell if this particular mix of comedy and black, grim tragedy will work. But I think you’ve got to do it, and then see.”

One place where the film may face a tricky reception is Russia itself. A high-ranking minister in the Russian government is said to have described the film as “a planned provocation”, and called for a ban, but Iannucci says its Russian release next year is still very much on track.

“We have a Russian distributor, they’re talking to the authorities quite soon, and we’re hopeful that it’ll be released sometime next year.”

And how does he think it’ll go down over there, we asked?

“I’m sure it’ll be mixed. People who lived through that experience who have watched the film – and have laughed – have said at the end ‘but it’s all true’.”

‘The Death of Stalin’ is in UK cinemas now. Watch the trailer below.

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