When Karl Marx, of all people, wrote that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce, he couldn't have known of the terrifying end of days of the brutal Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, nor the gleeful savagery with which it’s reproduced in the dazzling "The Death of Stalin."
Co-written and directed by Armando Iannucci, the creator of HBO's "Veep" who wrote the Oscar-nominated script for "In the Loop," this is a comedy of terrors that creates laughs but doesn't let you forget that Stalin and his coterie caused the deaths of untold numbers of Soviet citizens.
Iannucci’s take-no-prisoners directorial style is perfect for this blackest of farces. It's a film that takes us from Stalin's final days in March 1953 through the battle for power among his intimidated minions — spineless but dangerous sycophants who made up the great man's potential successors.
The director has said that he took special care with casting, trying to match the actors to the historical personages, and that has led to a formidable group including Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend.
Rather than mandate uniform accents, Iannucci allowed everyone to speak naturally, which makes the largely British cast sound, unnervingly at times, like an unruly group of soccer hooligans who have somehow gotten an entire country under their thumb.
Because "Death," like all farces, requires exact line readings and verbal dexterity, Iannucci mandated an extended rehearsal period so the players could coalesce as a group. Buscemi has said the result "reminded me a little bit of a Robert Altman film," though even Altman could not have dreamed up a situation quite this demented.
Though the days before and after Stalin's death have been written about extensively (Simon Sebag Montefiore's "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar" is especially good), Iannucci and co-writers David Schneider and Ian Martin based their script on a French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin.
Yet, and this is crucial, as bizarre as the film's end-of-days shenanigans seem — including specifics like Stalin's bottomless enthusiasm for American westerns and juvenile practical jokes involving squashed tomatoes — almost all of them are based on fact.
As the opening to the graphic novel accurately states, "it would have been impossible to come up with anything half as insane as the real events surrounding the death of Stalin."
"Stalin" starts with a situation involving the dictator's love for Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 and a radio concert that should have been recorded but wasn't. It's a vignette that demonstrates how justifiably terrified Russians were of the NKVD, Stalin's vast state terror regime, led by the unnerving Lavrentiy Beria (Beale, a long way from his usual Shakespearean roles).
After that we switch scenes to Stalin's residence outside Moscow for a usual night out with "the boss" and his confederates, who include, besides Beria, Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Tambor) and Vyacheslav Molotov (Palin).
Played as a genial psychopath by Adrian McLoughlin, Stalin starts out by giving Beria his execution orders ("put him on the list, and his wife, and shoot him first so she sees it") and then torments these men, members of the Communist Party's Central Committee, with a way past midnight insistence that "it's time for a cowboy movie. Who's in my posse?"
After the posse is finally allowed to go home, Stalin suffers a stroke. When he’s found dying, everyone is so afraid of doing the wrong thing that no one dares call a doctor. More than that, physicians themselves, fearful of their lives because a recent bogus "Doctors Plot" has named their colleagues as traitors, are scared to treat him.
Adding more madness to the farce is the arrival of Stalin's two children, the naive Svetlana (Riseborough) and the hot-headed alcoholic Vasily (Friend).
Once the great man dies, the scramble for control of the country between members of a Gang That Couldn't Plot Straight begins in earnest.
Beria is successful at first in part because, as head of NKVD, he has his own private army, which he employs strategically while his colleagues worry about what Stalin would have wanted them to do.
The only person not worried is the great war hero Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov, played with enormous brio by Isaacs. Once he's contacted by the ever-conniving Khrushchev ("How can you plot and run at the same time?" someone admiringly asks) the game is on in earnest.
Though the old USSR is long gone, the current authoritarian regime in Russia has a soft spot for its Stalinist past, so much so that "The Death of Stalin" was recently banned from the country's theaters for "extremism" and the way it "desecrates our historical symbols." That's how close to the bone this remarkable film cuts.
'The Death of Stalin'
Rating: R, for language throughout, violence and some sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: Arclight, Hollywood, Landmark, West Los Angeles