The year is 1953 and the place is Moscow, where the Great Terror of Joseph Stalin's regime is centred. Tonight Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) himself has been listening to a classical music concert on the state radio and enjoys it so much that he telephones the control booth at the concert hall where the director (Paddy Considine) takes the call, ordered to call back in seventeen minutes. In a panic, he does so and is informed Stalin would like a recording of the occasion - unfortunately it was not recorded at all, and the director has to rustle up an audience and prevent the orchestra and lead pianist Maria (Olga Kurylenko) from leaving, so they can play it all again and record it this time...
Just one anecdote from the insanity of fear bred by Stalin's government, only this time we were intended not to be horrified, but amused. The Death of Stalin proved a most controversial film, especially in Russia, where it was banned supposedly for insulting the memory of their World War II heroes, yet as had been noted the climate under Putin was growing decidedly totalitarian and oppressive in the view of outsiders, and to certain insiders as well, and this censorship gave rise to ponderings about whether Russia was cracking down on anything that could be seen as exposing the dark facts of its past when the present was not exactly looking too sunny either.
But the naysayers had a point: a comedy about a state of affairs that had seen millions imprisoned and executed, far more than the Holocaust ever had been afflicted with - you would not see that as fit subject for laughter, claimed those insulted by the very idea of director Armando Iannucci's efforts. Only Life is Beautiful had won an Oscar back in the nineteen-nineties and that was a Holocaust comedy, the difference apparently being that was a twinkly affirmation of the power of life under dreadful circumstances, and this was revelling in the fact that when people are given too much power over some other people, they will exploit it and give in to their worst impulses.
The Death of Stalin was basically a "how stupid can you get?" comedy where the stupid had the lives of millions under their control and could murder them on a whim. How could something like that possibly raise a laugh? But the story did not shy away from the horrors of the subject, and that lent it some traction, very typically Iannucci's sense of humour which often mused over how authority figures, or at least those who have enjoyed some privileged position in life no matter how minor that was, could behave with such incompetence, and self-serving incompetence at that. Essentially what was on offer here was a film version of his cynically satirical television shows The Thick of It or Veep, only translated to the historical state crimes of Russia: it was identifiably of a piece with those works, with exactly the same humour.
The only difference was, the characters on television did not resort to murder when things were either not going their way or when they felt they could get away with that kind of abuse of power, to the point of entertaining them and boosting their ego to luxuriate in such villainy. The irony is, of course, the caustic paranoia they bred would come back and bite them eventually, leaving them often hoist to their own petard, a justice, however belatedly, this film was keen to convey, though you may not share its guarded optimism when countless had died in the process of evening the odds that were not so even anyway. The laughs here were scattered; when it was funny it was very funny in a bleak fashion, but more often it served as a reminder of how disturbing the influence of those mad with power can be. It was superbly acted by everyone, even down to the smaller supporting roles - Jason Isaacs offering the proceedings a real shot in the arm in the second half - and if it was intended to have the audience uneasy it succeeded completely, but it was a tightrope act where you were not entirely convinced it reached the other side.