The Death of Stalin (2017)

Movie


The Death of Stalin (2017)

In early-1953 Moscow, under the Great Terror's heavy cloak of state paranoia, the ever-watchful Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, collapses, unexpectedly, of a brain haemorrhage. As a result, when someone discovers his body the following morning, a frenetic surge of raw panic starts spreading like a virus amongst the senior members of the Council of Ministers, as they scramble to maintain order, weed out the competition, and, ultimately, take power. But, in the middle of a gut-wrenching roller-coaster of incessant plotting, tireless machinations, and frail allegiances, absolutely no one is safe; not even the feared chief of the secret police, Lavrenti Beria. In the end, who will prevail after the death of Stalin?
UK
France
Belgium
IMDb   7.2 /10
Metacritic   88 %
TheMovieDb    7.0 /10
RottenTomatoes
FilmAffinity   6.2 /10
Information
Release Date2017-10-20
Runtime1h 47min
GenreComedy, Drama, History
Content RatingR (R)
AwardsNominated for 2 BAFTA Film Awards. Another 18 wins & 38 nominations.
CompanyQuad Productions, Main Journey, Gaumont
CountryUK, France, Belgium, Canada, USA
LanguageEnglish
Maria Veniaminovna Yudina
Spartak Sokolov - Conductor 1
Georgy Malenkov
Nikita Khrushchev
Vyacheslav Molotov
NKVD Officer Delov
Woman in Layers of Clothes
Man in Layers of Clothes (as Andrey Korzhenevskiy)
Musician 1 (as Roger Ashton Griffiths)
Citizen Bundled into Car

The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin is a 2017 political satire black comedy film written and directed by Armando Iannucci and co-written by Fabien Nury, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows. Based on the French graphic novel La Mort de Staline (2010–2012), the film depicts the internal social and political power struggle among the Council of Ministers following the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1953. The British-French-Belgian co-production stars an ensemble cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Paul Whitehouse, Olga Kurylenko, and Jeffrey Tambor.

The Death of Stalin was screened in the Platform section at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and received critical acclaim. It was released in the United Kingdom by Entertainment One Films on 20 October 2017, in France by Gaumont on 4 April 2018 and in Belgium by September Film Distribution on 18 April 2018. The film was banned in Russia and Kyrgyzstan for allegedly mocking the countries' pasts and making fun of their leaders. It received various awards including two British Academy Film Award nominations for Outstanding British Film as well as 13 British Independent Film Award nominations winning 4 awards including for Simon Russell Beale for Best Supporting Actor.


Plot

Chairman of the Council of Ministers Joseph Stalin listens to an evening recital of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 on Radio Moscow at his dacha. He enjoys it so much, he calls the concert ordering that it deliver a recording to him. However, there is no recording so the engineers have to hurriedly repeat the whole concert. Disgusted pianist Maria Yudina hides a note for Stalin in the record sleeve lambasting him for abusing the nation. Meanwhile, Stalin has dinner with Central Committee members Vyacheslav Molotov (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Georgy Malenkov (Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers), Nikita Khrushchev (Moscow CPSU gorkom), and Lavrentiy Beria (Ministry of Internal Affairs (NKVD)). As the group prepares to leave the dacha, Beria casually reveals Stalin wants to have Molotov killed in the next round of purges.

Once alone, Stalin puts on the recital and discovers the note. He reads it and starts to laugh hysterically which causes a cerebral haemorrhage and paralysis. His guards hear him fall but in fear do not enter his room. He is only discovered the next morning by his housekeeper. All members of the Central Committee rush immediately to the dacha after being telegrammed. Beria, who arrives first, finds the note from Yudina, and then begins to take papers from Stalin's safe, which he hands to his men outside. Malenkov, who is Stalin's successor, arrives next and begins to panic. But Beria calms him down while secretly planning to use him as a puppet.

Next to arrive is Khrushchev, who is informally the direct deputy to Malenkov. He is joined afterwards by Minister of Trade Anastas Mikoyan, Minister for Labour Lazar Kaganovich, and Minister of Defence Nikolai Bulganin. The Committee move Stalin to his bedroom, after which Beria immediately has the NKVD take over city security duties from the Red Army. He also replaces Stalin's blacklist with his own which spares Molotov. Khrushchev and Beria then begin to struggle for symbolic victories, such as control over Stalin's daughter, Svetlana, and his mentally unstable, alcoholic son, Vasily.

After Stalin eventually dies, the Committee hurry back to Moscow while the NKVD clear out Stalin's dacha and shoot all its staff and guards. Khrushchev goes to Molotov's home to attempt to obtain his support but Molotov opposes this on the ground that it would be factionalism, something Stalin was against. However, Beria cynically secures Molotov's loyalty by releasing his wife Polina Zhemchuzhina from prison.

The Committee convene and name Malenkov Premier, as stated under the Soviet Constitution. However, he is largely under the control of Beria, who uses him to better his own position in the Committee's first post-Stalin meeting. As a result, Khrushchev is sidelined and put in charge of planning Stalin's funeral. Beria uses this to suggest the introduction of the liberal reforms that Khrushchev had wanted to implement. While Stalin lies in state in the Hall of Columns, Beria earns more popular support by releasing political prisoners and loosening restrictions on the Russian Orthodox Church. However, he is challenged by the arrival of Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov, who is infuriated that the Red Army has been confined to barracks. He and Khrushchev are further incensed when they learn that Beria has stopped all trains into Moscow in order to prevent the NKVD from being overwhelmed by mourners. Beria, however, learns that Khrushchev is acquainted with Yudina, who has been hired to play at Stalin's funeral. He thus exerts influence on Zhukov and Khrushchev by threatening to reveal the contents of Yudina's note.

In retaliation, Khrushchev approaches Zhukov to obtain the support of the Red Army in staging a coup against Beria. Zhukov is open to the idea but only if it has the full support of the Central Committee. Khrushchev begins to undermine Beria's popularity by ordering trains to re-enter Moscow: the NKVD are overwhelmed and massacre 1,500 mourners. The Committee suggests blaming junior officers in the NKVD but Beria opposes this because, he believes, on account of his own association with the NKVD, it will tarnish his reputation. He angrily threatens the Committee that he will reveal the files he has on all of them. As the Committee stand in a guard of honour around Stalin's body, the Orthodox Church arrive, enraging Molotov. The following day Molotov meets up with Khrushchev and Kaganovich, inside a limousine at a remote location to preserve secrecy, stating he will back a coup against Beria if it has the support of the rest of the Committee.

On the day of Stalin's funeral, Khrushchev lies to Molotov and Zhukov that the Committee unanimously support action against Beria. Zhukov informs his men, who relieve the NKVD at their posts and arrest Beria. Khrushchev coerces Malenkov into signing Beria's arrest warrant. At a hasty trial, Khrushchev and his allies find Beria guilty of sexual assault, rape and pedophilia. In an ensuing struggle, a soldier prematurely shoots Beria in the head. The decision is taken to douse his corpse in petrol and set fire to it. As Beria's body burns, Khrushchev gives Svetlana a ticket to Vienna and assures her that her brother, Vasily, will be cared for.

Several years later, Khrushchev is now leader of the Soviet Union after removing or demoting his co-conspirators. He attends a concert by Yudina; meanwhile his future successor Leonid Brezhnev intently watches him from the next row of seats.


Cast

  • Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev
  • Simon Russell Beale as Lavrenti Beria
  • Paddy Considine as Andreyev
  • Rupert Friend as Vasily
  • Jason Isaacs as Georgy Zhukov
  • Olga Kurylenko as Maria Veniaminovna Yudina
  • Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov
  • Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana
  • Dermot Crowley as Lazar Kaganovich
  • Paul Chahidi as Nikolai Bulganin
  • Adrian McLoughlin as Josef Stalin
  • Paul Whitehouse as Anastas Mikoyan
  • Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov

Production

The project began development during the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Armando Iannucci was set as director and writer, alongside his The Thick of It co-writer Ian Martin. Production was due to begin in June, with Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Olga Kurylenko, Timothy Dalton, Toby Kebbell, Michael Palin, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine and Andrea Riseborough amongst the cast. Production began on June 20, with Adrian McLoughlin, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs and Paul Whitehouse joining the cast. Dalton and Kebbell, who were originally respectively cast as Georgy Zhukov and Vasily Stalin, ultimately did not appear in the film.

Production ended 6 August 2016.

Filming locations included Kyiv, Ukraine (for exteriors scenes and exterior of Public Enemies building and NKVD building), the United Kingdom (at Blythe House, Freemasons' Hall and Alexandra Palace in London, Mongewell Park in Oxfordshire, Hammersmith Town Hall in London), and in Moscow, Russia, at the Red Gate Building.

The soundtrack was composed by Christopher Willis. The score was written in the style of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich of the Stalin era.


Release

Box office

The Death of Stalin was released by eOne Films in the United Kingdom on 20 October 2017 and IFC Films in the United States on 9 March 2018. The film was screened in the Platform section at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.

The Death of Stalin grossed $8 million in the United States and Canada and $16.6 million in other territories (including $7.3 million in the UK), for a worldwide total of $24.6 million.


Reception

Critical response

On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 95% based on 243 reviews, with an average rating of 8.06/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "The Death of Stalin finds director/co-writer Armando Iannucci in riotous form, bringing his scabrous political humor to bear on a chapter in history with painfully timely parallels." On Metacritic the film has a weighted average score of 88 out of 100, based on 43 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".

Donald Clarke, writing for The Irish Times, wrote that the film "starts in a state of mortal panic and continues in that mode towards its inevitably ghastly conclusion". In The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote that "fear rises like gas from a corpse in Armando Iannucci's brilliant horror-satire" and that it "is superbly cast, and acted with icy and ruthless force by an A-list lineup. There are no weak links. Each has a plum role; each squeezes every gorgeous horrible drop."

Raphael Abraham, writing for the Financial Times, wrote, "As this coven of vampiric apparatchiks feasts on the remains of Stalinism, the unremitting blackness of the situation at times threatens a full comedy eclipse. But the discomfiting balancing act of humour and horror is precisely Iannucci's game—and only he could pull it off with such skill." Thomas Walker, in a review for The Objective Standard, agrees, and adds that the film "dives deep into the psychology of those living under such a system and lays bare the self-destructive mind-set of those who grasp wildly for power."

Former U.S. President Barack Obama included The Death of Stalin as one of his favourite films of 2018.

Awards and honours

YearAwardCategorySubjectResultRef.
2017British Academy Film AwardOutstanding British FilmThe Death of StalinNominated
Best Adapted ScreenplayArmando Iannucci, Ian Martin, and David SchneiderNominated
2017British Independent Film AwardsBest British Independent FilmThe Death of StalinNominated
Best DirectorArmando IannucciNominated
Best ScreenplayArmando Iannucci, David Schneider, & Ian MartinNominated
Best Supporting ActorSimon Russell BealeWon
Steve BuscemiNominated
Best Supporting ActressAndrea RiseboroughNominated
Best Production DesignCristina CasaliWon
Best Costume DesignSuzie HarmanNominated
Best Make Up & Hair DesignNicole StaffordWon
Best MusicChristopher WillisNominated
Best CastingSarah CroweWon
Best EditingPeter LambertNominated
Best EffectsNominated
2017Magritte AwardBest Foreign FilmThe Death of StalinNominated

Controversy

Nikolai Starikov, head of the Russian Great Fatherland Party, said The Death of Stalin was an "unfriendly act by the British intellectual class" and part of an "anti-Russian information war". In September 2017 the head of the Public Council of the Russian Ministry of Culture said Russian authorities were considering a ban on the film, alleging the film could be part of a "western plot to destabilise Russia by causing rifts in society". On 23 January 2018, two days before the film's scheduled release in Russia, a screening was attended by State Duma MPs, representatives of the Russian Historical Society, members of the Culture Ministry's Public Board, and film industry members. Two days later, the Ministry of Culture withdrew the film's distribution certificate. But several cinemas screened the film in late January, claiming that by then they had not heard that the movie's exhibition license had been revoked. Russia's culture ministry sued these theatres.

According to the results of a poll conducted by the state-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTSIOM), 35% of Russians disapproved of the Culture Ministry's decision to pull the film off the screens, while 30% supported the ban and 35% were neutral. 58% of Russians said they would be willing to watch the film in cinemas if the ban were lifted. The film has been illegally downloaded around 1.5 million times in Russia.

A group of Russian Culture Ministry's lawyers, including the daughter of Zhukov, Era Zhukova, cinematographers Nikita Mikhalkov, Vladimir Bortko, and Head of the Russian State Historical Museum Alexey Levykin, petitioned Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky to withdraw the film's certification, saying "The Death of Stalin is aimed at inciting hatred and enmity, violating the dignity of the Russian (Soviet) people, promoting ethnic and social inferiority, which points to the movie's extremist nature. We are confident that the movie was made to distort our country's past so that the thought of the 1950s Soviet Union makes people feel only terror and disgust." The authors said the film denigrated the memory of Russian World War II fighters, with the National Anthem accompanied by obscene expressions and offensive attitude, historically inaccurate decorations, and the planned release on the eve of the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad "a spit in the face of all those who died there, and all those who are still alive". The film was banned in Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Armenia and Belarus were the only members of the Eurasian Economic Union to show it. In Armenia the film premiered in two cinemas in Yerevan on 25 January 2018. In Belarus the film premiered after an initial delay. In Kazakhstan the film was screened only at the Clique festival.


Historical accuracy

A number of academics have pointed to historical inaccuracies in The Death of Stalin. Iannucci has responded, "I'm not saying it's a documentary. It is a fiction, but it's a fiction inspired by the truth of what it must have felt like at the time. My aim is for the audience to feel the sort of low-level anxiety that people must have when they just went about their daily lives at the time."

Historian Richard Overy has written that the film "is littered with historical errors", including:

  • Molotov was not foreign minister when Stalin died. He had been sacked in 1949, but became foreign minister again in the post-Stalin reshuffle.
  • Marshal (not Field Marshal) Zhukov was a local field commander when Stalin died, exiled to the provinces to satisfy Stalin's paranoid jealousy of him. He became deputy minister of defence in the post-Stalin government but was not the commander of the Soviet Army in March 1953.
  • Khrushchev, not Malenkov, chaired the meeting to reorganise the government.
  • Beria was arrested three months after Stalin died, not almost simultaneously, and that was precipitated by the 1953 East German uprising, not a massacre of mourners in Moscow, which is actually based on the 109 who were trampled to death during the funeral. Furthermore, Beria was not head of the security forces, a job he gave up in 1946.

Overy was most critical that the film did not appropriately honour those who died during Stalin's leadership. Iannucci said he "chose to tone down real-life absurdity" to make the work more believable.

The Radio Moscow portion is a retelling of an apocryphal story first recorded in Solomon Volkov's book Testimony. But in Volkov‘s account it was Maria Yudina who was awakened in the middle of the night to be brought in to record, and the recording brought Stalin to tears, moving him to pay Yudina 20,000 rubles in appreciation. The story subsequently served as the loose basis for the 1989 BBC radio play The Stalin Sonata by David Zane Mairowitz. While the anecdote did have her send a letter to Stalin, she supposedly wrote to thank him for the money, adding that she would donate it to the restoration of a church and that she would be praying for Stalin's sins to be forgiven. In addition, while the real Maria Yudina had been fired on one occasion for her ideological disagreements with the regime, her family had not been killed.

Another smaller historical aspect of the plot was modified for the film, the 1950 Sverdlovsk plane crash in which 11 players on the VVS Moscow ice hockey team died. In the film Vasily Stalin and Anatoly Tarasov deal with a depleted Soviet Union national ice hockey team, complete with a reference to their star player Vsevolod Bobrov, who missed the flight. However, the crash happened on 5 January 1950, over three years before Stalin's death.

The NKVD had been superseded by the MVD in 1946, almost seven years before the death of Stalin.

Samuel Goff, at the Department of Slavonic Studies, University of Cambridge, while admitting that the film's historical discrepancies could be justified as helping to focus the drama, wrote that turning Beria into "an avatar of the obscenities of the Stalinist state" missed the chance to say "anything about the actual mechanisms of power." Goff argued that Iannucci's approach to satire was not transferable to something like Stalinism and the film is "fundamentally ill-equipped to locate the comedy inherent to Stalinism, missing marks it doesn't know it should be aiming for."