Forget everything you’ve read up to now, because my entire life with all its preoccupations, hopes and fears, pales into insignificance since I’ve watched The Death of Stalin. I ‘d been meaning to see this when it came out but as with so many things it wasn’t being screened locally, so I’m happy it’s turned up on Netflix. I studied Russian history in the 1970’s when Communism (so-called, actually totalitarianism) was still in force and Gorbachev yet to come to power – and I was deeply impressed by the suffering of the Russian people. They seem to go out of the frying pan into the fire with each change of regime: first they had the Tsars who were awful, then they had the Communists who started off well but ended up even worse, then they had Perestroika which was good for a bit but which gave way to ‘democracy’ and now they’ve got Putin, who’s even worse than Trump.
The Death of Stalin, like history repeating itself, is not so much tragedy as farce, albeit a very black farce. The politburo could be any political elite anywhere at any time after the death of a brutal dictator with everyone rushing around plotting and trying to save their own skins, all too scared to be the first to admit that their glorious leader is dead. They even have trouble finding a doctor to certify death as all the doctors have been killed or exiled, and eventually they have to haul a load of medics out of a gulag and bring them in to the Kremlin to examine the ‘patient’. The purges are ever-present in the background of this story, as is the monstrous figure of Beria played utterly stunningly by Simon Russell Beale (he has a huge reputation on stage but I’ve always found him a bit blah on film: no longer.) The casting is an incredible mix of the serious and the comic: serious actors like Beale stand alongside comedians Paul Whitehouse and Michael Palin. It hits home all the more because the accents are mostly British and Northern with a couple of American voices thrown in.
The action begins at a concert being broadcast live on radio. The moment it’s finished the producer gets a call from Comrade Stalin himself asking for a recording. Well, not so much asking as ordering. Problem is, the concert wasn’t recorded – and so the farce begins, with people being rounded up from the street to replace audience members who’ve already left, and a conductor being woken from his bed to substitute the original. But the pianist refuses to play on the not unreasonable grounds that Comrade Stalin murdered her entire family. When the recording is made she pushes a note into the sleeve expressing her wish that Comrade Stalin would die: he reads it and obligingly expires. End of act one.
The panic surrounding his demise is like Brian Rix on a total downer; the blackest of black comedies. The intrigue, the terror, the purges it all strikes an incredible balance between horror and humour, and the death of Beria is terrifying. I was utterly purged by watching it – which is quite appropriate really…
If you haven’t seen it, watch it now.