If you can speak of Armando Iannucci’s HBO series Veep and his 2009 movie In the Loop as following a formula in the midst of their flirtations with anarchy—their situations engineered to spin out of control, taking the improvisational performances with them—then you might say that he practices the old knaves-and-fools dialectic: portraying political animals as either skilled, self-involved brutes or bumbling, self-involved imbeciles, but mutually dependent and, in both cases, terrifyingly foul-mouthed. To provide enabling space for this bad behavior, Iannucci also interposes a smattering of middle terms: characters who are reasonably competent and responsible (like you, in other words) but fallible enough to compromise themselves or be fouled up by idiots—and also terrifyingly foul-mouthed.
Having put this formula to work with present-day situations and fictitious characters in his earlier dark comedies, Iannucci now applies it for the first time to a historical incident, involving much higher stakes and a roster of more or less real figures from 1953, including Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin). These are the knaves and fools who party like frat boys, play practical jokes with their food, and tell raucous, blood-drenched stories over dinner to amuse the title monster (Adrian McLoughlin) in The Death of Stalin.
Shot—I mean, photographed—in a steadier and more deep-hued style than In the Loop, with scenes recorded amid significantly more elaborate settings, The Death of Stalin takes a stab—I mean, makes an effort—at conveying the gravity of its subject through an early montage of MVD arrests, interrogations, and murders. To an agitation of Tchaikovsky on the soundtrack, bulbous sedans roar through the dead of night, sick-faced sons point to the rooms where their fathers are hiding, and, in the background, bodies thud and tumble down staircases. Multiply by a thousand, the montage suggests—by a million. I have seen more dreadful dramatizations of Stalin and Beria’s reign of terror, but I credit Iannucci with presenting this version straight. The trick, though, in keeping with the formula, is to veer back and forth without transition between different types of brutality: on one side tortures and killings, and on the other blatant slapstick.
Iannucci sets the tone by opening in an ornate concert hall, where the musicians onstage are performing an achingly beautiful piano concerto by Mozart, while in the Radio Moscow broadcast booth the engineers are falling over themselves in panic and casting aspersions like mud pies, because Stalin himself has phoned and they don’t know what he wants. You detect a whiff of proud, strained, despairingly useless artistic culture, expelled like stale air from the Soviet balloon that Iannucci has just popped. Before long, the conductor will knock himself cold with a pratfall—that’s how scared he is of Stalin—while the chief radio engineer, forced by a whim of the General Secretary’s to repeat the performance, informs the audience that they are not going home. They will stay, listen again, and applaud. At which instruction, before so much as another note has been played, the music lovers dutifully begin clapping—and, just to make sure, rise to their feet.
So we see the complicity between knaves and fools, the bond between victimizers and victims, which also plays out among the film’s principal characters: the members of the Central Committee. The purest knave among them (apart from the title corpse) is Beria, portrayed by Beale with the rotund, pince-nezed suavity of a man who can be utterly reassuring, even genial, in the breath before he orders a woman to be shot in front of her husband. Except for suffering a grisly demise (spoiler alert!), Beria is too vicious to be subjected to slapstick—unlike the Central Committee’s purest fool, Malenkov, whose characterization by Tambor is one long comic indignity of owlish blinks, jowl-shaking stammers, whinnies of inappropriate laughter, and vain adjustments to his dubious hair. Not surprisingly, Malenkov is among the first to make the error, when kneeling beside Stalin’s unconscious form, of dipping his trouser legs into a puddle of urine.
Of course, Iannucci also provides a few middle-term characters—notably the sweetheart of the movie, Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), whose sincerity and intelligence somehow have not been poisoned by the general indecency, and the movie’s hero, Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who is ahistorically trim and chisel-featured as embodied by Jason Isaacs, an actor who always seems to have one lock of hair dangling dashingly over an eyebrow, and so provides just the wish fulfillment the audience needs.
But the crucial middle term is Khrushchev, who gradually does something previously unknown for an Iannucci character: change from being a semi-fool into not quite a knave. You will search in vain for anyone adaptable in Veep or In the Loop, anyone with a hint of an inner life that might overflow his or her function in the plot. You might not expect such a character in this movie, either, when you first see Buscemi braying like a buffoon as Khrushchev, with his signature baggy suit and hockey oval of a bald spot. He, too, manages to soak his knees in piss, and (worse than Malenkov) does it while still dressed in his pajamas. But then, as the jockeying for power begins, something takes hold in the man.
Partly it’s Khrushchev’s realization that he’s out of options: He can either act boldly now or wait a few days for Beria to kill him. Partly it’s that Khrushchev is in love with Svetlana. Not that he says so, or that she understands he’s fumbling for some equivalent of “I love you.” But you sense what’s going on in him when he babbles that he’ll never let any harm come to her, that he’d personally stand in the way of any harm—professions that do nothing, as they drag on, except provoke Svetlana into shouting that he’s the only one around here talking about harm, and some help he’d be anyway. Riseborough fully lives up to her flaming hair, as she shows an initial bafflement igniting into alarm and then outrage; but Buscemi is the actor who goes through the bigger transformation in this scene, as Khrushchev nerves himself up to overstep a limit with Svetlana. Even though his daring in this scene yields him nothing except rejection, the momentum will carry him toward a second, far more dangerous threshold.
If this sounds like a romantic process more than a historical one, bear in mind that Iannucci claims to be nothing more than an entertainer, whose source for The Death of Stalin is a graphic novel of the same name by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. The authors researched their subject both deeply and a little indiscriminately. That pianist performing Mozart, for example, is based on the real-life Maria Yudina, but she is shown in the context of a questionable episode from Solomon Volkov’s much-disputed Testimony. As you might expect, then, Nury and Robin’s treatment of the material, and Iannucci’s, relies on broad contour lines and heavy contrasts. Their Yudina not only expresses her contempt for Stalin, as the historical figure did, but becomes the precipitating cause of his death when she manages to slip him a defiant note, whose message spurs the dictator’s collapse. History advances by sympathetic magic, as well as by slapstick and unrequited love—which is fine in a movie so long as it’s a good one, like The Death of Stalin.
Honesty compels me, though, to mention that the great film about the death of Stalin is the 1998 Khrustalyov, My Car! With its multitude of characters ironically sideswiped by the cruelties of history and crazily shuffled by the raging, satirical writer-director Aleksey German, it’s a movie so exhaustingly dense and outlandish in every scene—so disconcerting, disorienting, eyeball-blasting, and heart-confounding—that my colleague John Powers once suggested that the New York Film Festival ought to sell tickets for 10-minute excerpts, since that was enough to give you the idea, and more than most people could absorb.
Needless to say, you can’t watch Khrustalyov, My Car! on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, or whatever pirate site your 14-year-old nephew has been using to download porn—though a few DVDs are still knocking around—so by dangling this unobtainable experience before you, I’m really just playing a nasty, teasing power game. Which seems appropriate, since it’s what so many of the characters in The Death of Stalin are accustomed to do. Maybe the movie doesn’t live up to the most lavish praise that’s been heaped on it, but there’s a certain grim pleasure to be had from seeing its knaves and fools stripped down to their essential, vulgar meanness—especially now, as we watch our mean, vulgar fool in the White House dancing with the Kremlin’s knave. If you want a couple hours’ relief from that spectacle, you might try The Death of Stalin. The laughter won’t stick in your throat—much.
To return, though, to where this story began: “Yes, that’s it!” Karl cries to Friedrich as they reel, very drunkenly, through an alley in Paris on the first night of their bromance. “Until now, philosophers interpreted the world. But it must be transformed!” At this stage of intoxication, guys like Seth Rogen and James Franco might have had the sudden, giggling inspiration, if transported back to the 19th century, to borrow that sweet phaeton they’d spotted in an archduke’s driveway and take it for a trot through the Bois de Boulogne. Not Karl and Friedrich: They come up with the Theses on Feuerbach.
So it goes in The Young Karl Marx, an improbably lush and deadpan-funny epic about a pair of two-fisted materialists and the bodacious babes who loved them, as they brawled and rollicked their way toward writing The Communist Manifesto. (“We must deliver it by February first! Only five weeks!”) Directed by Raoul Peck on the heels of his triumphant I Am Not Your Negro, and co-written by him with the perpetually waggish Pascal Bonitzer (who has helped the likes of Raul Ruiz and Jacques Rivette invent unexpected gifts), The Young Karl Marx is to the best of my knowledge something new, both in buddy comedies and romantic costume adventures: the story of a scheme to shoulder aside the leaders of the League of the Just and rededicate the organization to a bold new movement, marrying descriptive sociology to post-Hegelian theory!
Lantern-jawed August Diehl plays Marx, with a scraggly beard on his face and indignation forever burning in his deep-set eyes. Stefan Konarske, last seen as a space officer in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, brings a touch of sulky, pretty-boy glamour to the role of Engels. (Always chafing under the burden of his father’s money; always flinching at the expectation that Marx will bring it up again.) As Jenny von Westphalen, Vicky Krieps is as assertive as she was in Phantom Thread (the old order, she declares, will crumble!), though not to the point of serving her husband Karl an untrustworthy mushroom omelet. She just gives him a forgiving kiss and the reassurance that he must leave her behind in chilly Brussels with a newborn child, if the revolution needs him in London. (To be fair, this happens long before Engels would write The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.) As for Engels’s soul mate Mary Burns, Hannah Steele gives her the full Maureen O’Hara firebrand performance. John Ford would be smiling somewhere, if he were a communist and knew how to smile.
You get all this, plus horses, candles, drawing rooms, cobblestone streets, dark Satanic mills, and multiple debates with the ever-forgiving anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (Olivier Gourmet), photographed in approximately the same palette that cinematographer Kolja Brandt previously used for Young Goethe in Love (aka Goethe!).
Believing as I do that the best of all social programs, gendered pronouns aside, is “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs,” I am delighted to receive the improbable gift of The Young Karl Marx. That said, I’m a little worried that Peck might take this movie more seriously than I do. Although he clearly wants to entertain, he does not signal a desire like Iannucci’s to make you laugh—that’s your choice—and at the end presents a heroic montage of communism’s march through the decades. Faced with that finale, I have to say that one of my abilities is a capacity to make distinctions, and one of my needs is for a fair historical accounting. So, while I insist that communism get credit for its role in the international labor movement and the struggle against colonialism, I also think that Peck’s montage ought to have included a few less celebratory images: Soviet tanks on the streets of Budapest and Prague, let’s say, or starving Chinese peasants slaving over backyard steel foundries, or the rogues’ gallery from The Death of Stalin. Despite that lapse, Peck has, as with Lumumba, proved that he has a skill for historical epics. Now that it’s streaming, will you enjoy watching it? Very possibly, if you’ve got enough nerdiness to thrill at seeing Marx and Engels respond to Proudhon’s The Philosophy of Poverty with The Poverty of Philosophy. Is the whole thing kind of silly? Yes, but maybe not quite enough. Will it inspire the masses to take up the Manifesto anew? Now, that’s funny.