It is probably wise for a comedy not to have one of its biggest assets expire within twenty minutes of the film’s opening, but Armando Iannucci knows what he’s doing. The great dictator may had died in a squalid and humiliating way, via a stroke which left him flumped in his own faeces, but the terrifying presence of Joseph Stalin lingers right until the end of the film, continuing to claim lives up until his successor has consolidated power.
The real Great Bear, as he was known, had a similar ability to take life beyond death: at his funeral on a freezing Moscow day, over a hundred Russians were crushed to death as they rushed to praise their late leader, or to double check that he was really dead.
Other minor historical inaccuracies may irritate the more anal viewer (the film is based on a French graphic novel, itself a loose retelling of real events). Stalin’s underlings were much too scared to check on their boss immediately after hearing of his collapse, instead waiting nervously for over eleven hours until someone finally mustered up the courage. And the trial of Beria in the ensuing power struggle, one of the few serious and moving scenes in the film, did not take place until the following December.
But these details are irrelevant. The film’s real achievement is to recreate the atmosphere of hysterical fear that permeated the lives of those around the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Soviet Russia, a man so unpredictable in his evil that applause after one of his speeches reportedly went on for several hours, no one in the audience wanting to be the first to stop clapping.
Rupert Friend plays Stalin with a hideously gruff cockney accent, in keeping with the film’s conceit of not attempting any genuine Russian intonation. Jeffrey Tambor’s Malenkov initially fancies himself as a successor, but is evidently too gormless to stop the more power-hungry Khrushchev, ‘Nikky,’ played by the wonderful Steve Buscemi. Although first the plotting Beria (Simon Russell Beale) must be tried for ‘factionalism’ and several hundred counts of rape before the path to the premiership is clear.
These and other highly talented actors (Jason Isaacs is also superb as a butch Red Army chief) form the coterie of crippled men who seek to claim the leadership after their boss’s death, by which time the destruction of so many innocent lives has discredited any hope Communism once held.
The film has obviously been timed for the one hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, but its themes of wannabe dictators and the crushing of dissent are extremely contemporary. In today’s Russia, as Iannucci has pointed out, Putin portrays himself as a modern form of the old despot while an equally unhinged American president looks on admiringly.
For Iannucci himself, the film marks a clear break with earlier parodies of the Blair and Cameron era, although Thick of It swearing is often relied upon to supply laughs. The generally buffoonish nature of the film clearly reflects the country’s current political climate, in which, rather like an English version of the Soviet Union, a chaotic government attempts to prosecute a plan doomed pretty much from its inception, while denouncing naysayers as ‘enemies of the people,’ to use truly Stalinist language.
It is worth mentioning, also, that such unwholesome politics is by no means the monopoly of the right. The leader of the historically anti-Communist Labour Party hires spin doctors and aids who have long admired the Soviet Union as well as its most notorious figure.
The film has been rightly praised by critics, with the un-notable exception of Peter Hitchens (himself an admirer of Putin), who attacked it for making light of a regime that killed millions, thus joining the company of the Russian Ministry of Culture, which claimed equally absurdly that it was part of a ‘western plot to destabilise Russian culture.’
The film is a tactless comedy, yes, but it does not make jokes at the expense of the victims of Communism, but instead at the many pathetic old men who, their hands shaking in fear of the cadaver of their boss, signed the warrants for a genocide of the innocent.