The Death of Stalin
|The Death of Stalin|
British theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Armando Iannucci|
|Based on||La Mort de Staline|
by Fabien Nury
Thierry Robin and an original screenplay by Fabien Nury
|Music by||Chris Willis|
|Edited by||Peter Lambert|
|Box office||$24.6 million|
The Death of Stalin is a 2017 satirical dark comedy film written and directed by Armando Iannucci and co-written by Fabien Nury, David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows. A British-French-Belgian co-production, the film stars an ensemble cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Paul Whitehouse, and Jeffrey Tambor. Based on the 2010 and 2012 French graphic novel La Mort de Staline, the film depicts the power struggle following the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1953.
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' past and making fun of its leaders. It received a Magritte Award nomination in the category of Best Foreign Film.
In the USSR in 1953, Chairman of the Council of Ministers Joseph Stalin is listening to a concert on the radio and orders that a recording of it be delivered to him. The concert has to be hurriedly repeated and recorded, but the pianist, Maria Yudina, hides a note to Stalin in the sleeve of the record, saying he has ruined the country. As Stalin reads the note in his dacha, he suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and becomes paralysed. The members of the Central Committee are alerted. The first to arrive is Interior Ministry (NKVD) head Lavrentiy Beria. He discovers and pockets Yudina's note, and proceeds to steal papers from a safe and give them to his men who are waiting outside the dacha. Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers Georgy Malenkov arrives next. As Malenkov panics, Beria encourages him to take the leadership, hoping to use him as a puppet.
Moscow Party Head Nikita Khrushchev arrives with the rest of the Committee, except Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, whom Stalin had added to one of his lists of enemies the previous night. Beria closes off Moscow, has the NKVD take over city security duties from the Soviet Army, and replaces Stalin's list of enemies with his own list, reprieving Molotov. Khrushchev and Beria struggle for symbolic victories, including control over Stalin's daughter, Svetlana, and his unstable son, Vasily.
Stalin dies, and the Committee members rush back to Moscow. As soon as they leave NKVD troops arrive to loot Stalin's dacha and execute witnesses. Khrushchev goes to Molotov's home and attempts to enlist his support, but Molotov, a true believer in Stalinism, opposes any factionalism in the Communist Party. Beria buys Molotov's loyalty by releasing his wife, Polina Molotova, from confinement.
Malenkov is named Premier while being largely controlled by Beria. At the first Committee meeting following Stalin's death, Beria sidelines Khrushchev by putting him in charge of Stalin's funeral and suggesting the introduction of many of the liberal reforms Khrushchev had already planned. Stalin's body is laid in state in the Hall of Columns, while many political prisoners are released and restrictions on the Russian Orthodox Church are loosened, earning Beria more popular support. Marshal Georgy Zhukov arrives and demands to know why the Soviet Army has been confined to barracks within Moscow.
Beria learns that Khrushchev has a passing acquaintance with Maria Yudina, who has been hired to play at the funeral, and threatens them both that he will reveal Yudina's note. Khrushchev approaches Zhukov, who agrees to provide the Army's support in a coup to overthrow Beria, but only if the Committee agrees.
To undermine Beria's popularity, Khrushchev orders the resumption of trains into Moscow, allowing thousands of mourners into the city. As Khrushchev has anticipated, the NKVD guards around the Hall fire on the crowd, killing 1,500 people. The Committee suggests scapegoating low-level NKVD officers, but because Beria believes any blame attached to security services will tarnish his reputation, he angrily threatens the Committee with incriminating documents he has collected on them. Enraged that Beria has ended the State's persecution of the Orthodox Church, Molotov secretly tells Khrushchev and Lazar Kaganovich that he will support the coup if they can enlist the support of the others, including Malenkov.
On the day of Stalin's funeral, Khrushchev lies to the Committee and Zhukov that he has Malenkov's support. The Soviet Army overwhelms the NKVD and takes up positions outside the conference room. Zhukov and his men arrest Beria, and Khrushchev coerces Malenkov into signing the papers for Beria's trial. In a kangaroo court Khrushchev and his allies find Beria guilty of treason and sexual assault, and execute him. As Beria's body is burnt, Khrushchev gives Svetlana a ticket to Vienna and assures her that her brother will be cared for. Several years later, Khrushchev, now leader of the Soviet Union, having removed his co-conspirators, attends a concert by Maria Yudina, while future leader Leonid Brezhnev watches him from the next row of seats.
- Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev
- Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria
- Paddy Considine as Yuri Andreyev
- Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin
- Jason Isaacs as Georgy Zhukov
- Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov
- Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana Stalin
- Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov
- Adrian McLoughlin as Joseph Stalin
- Olga Kurylenko as Maria Yudina
- Paul Whitehouse as Anastas Mikoyan
- Paul Chahidi as Nikolai Bulganin
- Dermot Crowley as Lazar Kaganovich
- James Barriscale as Army General
- Leeroy Murray as Zhukov's Chief of Staff
- Daniel Fearn as Ivan Konev
- Luke D'Silva as Kirill Moskalenko
- Gerald Lepkowski as Leonid Brezhnev
- Dave Wong as Zhou Enlai
- Richard Brake as Anatoly Tarasov
- Diana Quick as Polina Molotova
- Justin Edwards as Spartak Sokolov (Conductor 1)
- Tom Brooke as Sergei
- Nicholas Woodeson as Boris Bresnavich (Conductor 2)
- Karl Johnson as Dr. Lukomsky
- Cara Horgan as Lidiya Timashuk
- Jonathan Aris as Mezhnikov
- Roger Ashton-Griffiths as Musician
- Sylvestra Le Touzel as Nina Khrushcheva
- Paul Ready as NKVD Officer Delov
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 began 20 June 2016 and ended 6 August.
Filming locations included Kiev, 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 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.
Ban in Russia
Ban in Russia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan
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 theatres 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.
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 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."
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.
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 movie 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. In actuality the crash happened on 5 January 1950, over three years before Stalin’s death.
It should also be noted that the NKVD was not known as such at the time of Stalin's death, having been replaced by the MVD in 1946.
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."
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