Are we laughing at the people in 2018's Death of Stalin or with them? It feels at first like an irrelevant question; hardly anyone laughs in the movie. And when they do, it's provoked by a commonplace sadism or arrogance. But do we see them as our fellow humans or as grotesque exaggerations? Despite the film being banned in most countries of the Eurasian Economic Union on the grounds that it slanders the Russian people, it's an extremely sharp and insightful film when it comes to the humanity of its characters.
Following the frantic machinations of high level officials following Stalin's (Adrian McLoughlin) sudden death, the film shows people having to make profound moral decisions ten times a minute while under constant fear for their lives. Their ambition is laughably shallow but do they have room for much else?
Reversing execution orders "was my idea!" Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) complains at one point when Beria (Simon Russell Beale) seems to be stealing his thunder. The circumstance has given Beria powers that seem little short of miraculous. He brings back a woman believed dead for many years from secret imprisonment, her sudden appearance forcing Khrushchev and her husband, Molotov (Michael Palin), to switch message mid-sentence from condemning her treachery to dismissing the obviously flimsy charges.
The absurdity is certainly realistic and paired with writer/director Armando Iannucci's comedic timing and temperament the story works out to be really funny at times. I've never seen Iannucci's American series, Veep, but I'm a big fan of his earlier political satire, The Thick of It. One thing The Death of Stalin made me aware of, though, was just how much of a contribution Peter Capaldi made to that series. I suspect his foul mouthed, champion belittler character, Malcolm Tucker, is much more charming than Iannucci or Capaldi intended. There's certainly no-one like that in Death of Stalin. When Beria brags about raping prisoners, one naturally feels only disgust.
This is one of the things that makes Khrushchev come off better by comparison but there's certainly so much blood on Khrushchev's hands by the end of the film that the distinction is certainly diminished. As he tells Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) near the end of the film, when urging someone's summary execution, the choice is between revenge from the person in question or his death. It's often hard to say what the right choice for a character might be.
Another writer might try to mitigate the apparent inhumanity of a character by showing him in some other aspect of his life where he's unreservedly warm or virtuous--maybe give Beria a child he deeply cares for, and we sort of get that in the fatherly affection he obviously has for Stalin's daughter (Andrea Riseborough). But in this paranoid ballet, nothing is ever really isolated from scheming.
As usual in parodies of Socialism, Communism, and Puritanism, the moral contrast between words and behaviour is extreme and commonplace, right down to the dictator, Stalin, consistently being referred to simply as "Comrade". Michael Palin's character may be the character with the most authentic feeling, generally coming off as a sweet old man whose ability to lapse instantly into a gratuitous and grandiose praise of the country and its leaders seems almost heartfelt. But at the same time, considering the abruptness of his about-face on his wife, his apparent candour could simply reflect especially extensive experience at lying.
I never laughed as hard as I did when watching The Thick of It but the film's impressive array of comedic and dramatic talent deliver a strange and solemnly effective comedy.