Sunday, 26 August 2018

The Death of Stalin

If you know your Soviet Union history, you will know Stalin was a pretty ruthless guy on the Hitler scale. The guy really tried to compete with Hitler when it came to killing and putting people of his own country into exile (he didn't mince words with other countries, either - ask Poland). Such was the horror of living under his regime that the silliest things in ordinary life were determined by the expected whim of the leader.
Into such a reality steps The Death of Stalin, a political satire kind of a movie that tries to demonstrate to us what the USSR was like on the day Stalin died. As I’m sure you are aware of, Stalin didn’t outright die back in 1953 when he died; he first suffered from a stroke, then - a few days later - he seemed to come back to life, and then he died. Throughout that period and afterwards, there was much confusion as no one dared assume Stalin’s place for fear of what might happen once he recovers while, at the same time, those powerful enough to be there struggled to be the one that will replace him when he dies.
The Death of Stalin takes some liberties with historical events, mainly through compressing the timeline into a period of days rather than the months it actually took till the matter of Stalin’s replacement was determined (hint: Khrushchev led the USSR through the Bay of Pigs incident and the Cuban crisis). However, it is very loyal to the truth, both in its depiction of the main characters and their actions at the time, as well as in its depiction of related events of that period (e.g., a concert that had to rerun when Stalin asked for a recording after the original session wasn’t recorded; or mass executions that came to an abrupt halt as the news of the leader’s death arrived, with whether one lived or died determined by when the news had arrived).
It’s all very striking given two things. Firstly, the knowledge that the USSR was a nuclear power at the time, yet with all its might it still came to a grinding, pathetic, halt. And secondly, the realisation that our political establishments in our modern era are actually not that different to Stalin's: witness Brexit, Trump, or just the recent spill attempt at the Liberal Party in which Prime Minister Turnbull survived a coup attempt from Peter Dutton. Can us Westerners truly boast to be much better than The Death of Stalin? I don’t think so.
I would do The Death of Stalin’s cast great injustice if I wasn’t to mention the performances on display. In our movie, Russian-ness is portrayed through a strong British accent; the stronger the accent, the tougher the person perceived himself to be. Quickly going over my favourites, I will mention Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev, Jason Isaacs as WW2 hero General Zhukov (my personal pick), Michael Palin as Molotov (ok, his performance was nothing special, but a Python is a Python), Rupert Friend as Stalin’s crazy son, and last - but not least - Simon Russell Beale as Beria, the notorious leader of the secret police and our baddie for the duration of the film.
There is a lot to learn from history, and The Death of Stalin proves the point unequivocally. It may not be the world’s most exciting movie, but it is a smart movie full to the brim with sarcasm, realism, and fine acting.
3.5 out of 5 crabs.

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