Making comedy about terrible events or tragedies is tricky. While some disagree, I don’t think any topic should be off-limits for comedians or satirists. But that said, if you pick a topic like Stalin-era Soviet Union as co-writer and director Armando Iannucci (In the Loop and HBO’s Veep) does with The Death of Stalin, you’re dramatically shrinking your margin of error. If you make a mediocre romantic comedy or kiddie adventure film, audiences might shrug and say “Well, that was okay.” But if you make a mediocre comedy about the relentless purges of Stalinist Russia, audiences will likely leave the theater feeling icky. You better hit it out of the park or come awfully close. Thankfully, Iannucci succeeds with a film that’s equally funny and disturbing.
In the 1953 Soviet Union, an increasingly paranoid Stalin is having the head of the secret police, Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), carry out regular purges. But when Stalin unexpectedly dies from a stroke, there is a mad scramble for power. Beria wants to run the show, but other ministers (Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, and others) are competing with him.
While it’s not quite as over-the-top as Stanley Kubrick’s classic Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, The Death of Stalin is reminiscent of it. It takes horrifying subject matter and reminds us that atrocities are carried out by petty, insecure bureaucrats and egomaniacs. Just as our daily lives feature moments of absurdity and humor, so do history’s darkest moments. By reminding viewers of this fact, the film also makes a sharp point about the banality of evil. In one scene late in the film, a doomed but odious character pointedly recites atrocities committed by every character who is condemning him. History’s horror shows aren’t enacted by devils; they’re perpetrated by otherwise stunningly ordinary people with families, insecurities, and idiosyncratic hobbies (Stalin loved cowboy movies).
It’s also important to note that the film’s humor never undersells the horror of what’s happening on screen. The death and misery are played straight. The deaths of innocent people are not played for laughs here.
The Death of Stalin is playing exclusively at The Broad Theater. Check it out before it leaves town.