Dir. Armando Iannucci. Starring Simon Russell Beale, Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor
“I know about the hockey team.”
This is the single funniest line in The Death of Stalin, a gravity well which sucks in comedy as easily as it sucks up horror or prestige drama. It is a perfect distillation of what works when the movie works, what makes the picture more than a simple farce about simple targets. It is almost too easy for Iannucci, the Last Satirist, to blow holes in the transitional government of Malenkov (Tambor) between Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) death and Khrushchev’s (Buscemi) ascension. (As ripe a target as Iannucci’s past marks, the spin doctors of the Washington Consensus, have been for him, even they must pale a little bit before the Central Committee of the Soviet Union lurching for power in the wake of the death of literally Joseph Stalin.) The Death of Stalin is at its funniest when the most absurd is the most serious. There are other contenders for this title, but they fall short. Khrushchev showing up to a comatose Stalin in his pajamas because he’s in a hurry to beat Beria (Beale) to the spot—only to find Beria already there—is pretty great, but the stakes are too high. Khrushchev knows that if Beria gets to Stalin’s office first, he can get Stalin’s files first, and getting there second is an absolute calamity. The ongoing conundrum Molotov (Michael Palin) faces about the rehabilitation of his presumably treacherous wife (the entirely unexpected Diana Quick) is closer, but Palin’s doing Brazil more than anything else in those moments, and Molotov is only ever a secondary player in this contest. A very close second is the young doctor that neither one of Stalin’s children accepts as a good enough candidate to help take care of their illustrious father. (They aren’t wrong! There is an outstanding ouroboros of reasoning by the Central Committee as they try to figure out what to do; all the good doctors are dead, and they can neither afford to call in a bad doctor for Stalin nor fail to call in any doctor for him.) “I’m twenty-nine,” he tells Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough). “That’s a lie,” she responds. Vasily (Rupert Friend) is likewise flummoxed by this youthful doctor. Vasily has a gift for transitioning without using any of the transitions that usually underpin little things like “conversation” or “coherence.” He bursts into the room where his father’s autopsy has already begun; he seems to understand that his dad is dead (“Leave his brain alone!”) but also not at all (“What are you doing to my father? Jackals! Murderers!”). He almost immediately lays eyes on this unfortunate young doctor and asks for his age. The doctor has learned his lesson: “I’m…old.” Again, the stakes are not quite high enough for maximum seriousness, but it is an absolute triumph of timing.
What’s so wonderful about “I know about the hockey team” is how long it takes the joke to unravel, and how perfectly it fits both of the characters as we’ve seen them. Vasily is concerned about how badly the Air Force hockey team is playing in one practice, and not without reason, because I think a Michael Scott transported to the early ’50s would be the best player on the team he’s observing. These were not the good players; those guys are dead, having been killed in a plane crash. It’s never adequately explained how Vasily intends to keep a plane crash a secret (perhaps because in real life the plane crash happened a few years earlier), but all the same he’s fairly vexed. But Beria knows. Beria always knows. He has the files. He has the secret police. He has a gazillion people in prison informing on each other. It’s impossible to imagine that he couldn’t know about the plane crash. In a heated sequence, with his nose practically up Vasily’s nostrils, he drops the bomb, one that’s been all but forgotten because of the incredulous avalanche of garbage crushing the Central Committee: “I know about the hockey team.” Beale is the standout performer of the picture: bald, gruff, corpulent, growling, and bad-tempered, he’s channeling psychopath Churchill In that moment, as he is in a score of others, Beria has the omniscience of a god but none of the other qualities that confer godliness. It’s why it will be his corpse that smells, in the words of the man who defeats him, like “rendered horseflesh” after it’s been set on fire; it’s why the man who ordered the bullets in so many brains gets one for his own. He can find the files in Stalin’s chambers when the despot collapses, but he cannot adequately signal to the people outside that he needs them to get the files from him. If there is a moral for this picture, and I’m afraid there is one, it’s that the wielding of this kind of power is rewarded by a fall later on. Beria’s stunning and utterly amoral use of power over the course of decades is what gets him executed; Svetlana’s attempts to maintain some influence are what get her exiled; Khrushchev is, the movie’s little epilogue reminds us, basically deposed by Brezhnev in the following years. Even Stalin, who lingers for hours in a puddle of his urine which half the Presidium dips their knees into, is doomed by the fear he inspired; the guards can hear a thud in the room when he collapses, but one of them is much too canny to actually walk in on the man himself. (They both get shot later. So it goes.) He is the Louis XIV in a demented Versailles, lifted into bed by his courtiers and rolled off at least two of their bodies onto the pillows.
All the same, the central figures of The Death of Stalin are Beria, the groping octopus with the soft flesh, and Khrushchev, the deliberate loggerhead with the funny nose, the men who are always the real power in the realm post-Stalin even if Malenkov (Tambor) is the one who technically has the title. (Beria does not put crushed tomatoes in Malenkov’s pockets, after all.) Malenkov, although he is Stalin’s successor, is also the one who understands least how to wield power. For so long he has sat in the halls of power that he appears to have forgotten how it’s actually demonstrated. He becomes effete and…fashionable?, which leads to a fairly graphic comment from Beria about Coco Chanel, feces, and hair; he is so invested in the speech he’ll give at Stalin’s funeral, the boldly simple tunics he favors, the paintings and photographs of him, the search for a girl photographed with Stalin who he’d like to see photographed with him, though not if she’s the size of an ostrich. No one says the words “personality cult” in The Death of Stalin, although there are a great many others blurted out, but Malenkov really does not understand that the personality cult typically requires the personality to, you know, still exist. The cult of Stalin, like some superstitious medieval Christianity, requires the threat of damnation to function. Stalin the people fear. Malenkov is Margaret Dumont surrounded by homicidal Marx Brothers; a running gag about his girdle is right on the edge of “I can’t see the stove.” The great difference between Khrushchev and Beria (and Khrushchev and Malenkov) is that Khrushchev has the good sense to be scared. Beria and Malenkov are so inflated they no longer have genuine fear; Molotov, despite everything that has happened to him, outlasting Stalin only because Stalin died before the order to execute Molotov was sent, is enjoying his borrowed time too much; drunkenness blinds Stalin’s son and the pretensions of the tsarinas infect his daughter. Khrushchev, who seems to genuinely believe in reforms and in changing the culture of terror that has pervaded the nation for decades, is afraid, and it is that fear which leads him to look outside himself for help. He asks Zhukov (Jason Isaacs, in rare form) to help him out with a coup, which Zhukov assents to; he pushes the other members of Central Committee to betray Beria, and when Malenkov is not adequately moved to drop Beria via Khrushchev’s persuasion, he goes right to bullying. Fear causes him to create consensus and shore up his weaknesses. It’s also, of course, a great way to get one of the better laughs of the movie. Khrushchev broaches the subject of a coup on tiptoes, and Zhukov absolutely scorches his eyebrows off:
Zhukov: I’m going to have to report this conversation, threatening to do harm or obstruct any member of the Presidium in the process of—look at your fucking face!