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.