'The Death of Stalin' finds the funny side of death, treachery and fear

Copyright Titan Comics

The cover to The Death of Stalin graphic novel. Art by Thierry Robin. 

By Andrew A. Smith

Tribune Content Agency

You wouldn’t think that a graphic novel named The Death of Stalin would be funny, but it is.

In fact, this blackest of black comedies was snatched up by a writer/director of political comedies, Armando Iannucci (creator of Veep), and turned into a movie that will debut at the Toronto Film Festival Sept. 17. And despite being a French-UK production (or maybe because of it), it has an all-star cast poached from both Hollywood and Great Britain.

“I was instantly captivated by it,” said Iannucci in a video interview from Titan Comics (available at captaincomics.ning.com/videos), a man whose film work includes political satires such as The Thick of It and the Oscar-nominated In the Loop. He describes being enthralled by the fantastic opening scene in The Death of Stalin, one that gives the flavor of life in the Soviet Union in 1953.

The Death of Stalin begins at Radio Moscow, where an orchestra is playing a Mozart piano concerto for broadcast, with famed soloist Maria Yudina on the keys. Stalin likes the performance, and – with a mysterious, threatening phone call – orders a recording to be made available for him immediately.

Unfortunately, the radio program was live – there is no recording. Frantic (“We’re all going to die.”), the station manager begins shouting orders: “Keep the musicians here! Tell security! No one leaves!” He tries to repeat the performance for a recording.

More misfortune: The conductor faints with terror and hits his head. Security forces scour the city for a replacement, who arrives in his pajamas. Oh, and Yudina refuses to perform, since Stalin put her entire family is in the gulag (“I don’t play for Stalin. … Go ahead, denounce me! You can’t force me to play!”). Then the secret police arrive for the recording, which results in still more screwball scrambling.

Narratively, this has very little to do with the rest of the story. But thematically and tonally, it’s precisely the opening we need: Terror and comedy in equal parts, derived from living in a brutal police state. We may not be Russians, but we intuitively understand how genuinely petrified these people are.

In this particular nation, the fear arises from the soon-to-exit Josef Stalin, whose cult of personality has by 1953 engulfed the entire Soviet Union, despite his murderous paranoia. No matter the situation, his shadow – and the terror it inspires – is everywhere.

Until he has a stroke. And believe it or not, even that is pretty funny.

For one thing, his guards are under orders to never disturb him, so Stalin lays on the floor of his room overnight, paralyzed. For another, Stalin had just purged all of Moscow’s top doctors, so there are no experts to treat him.

And for yet another, his bootlicks in the Politburo have to convene a committee meeting to call any doctors at all, delaying treatment even longer. That’s not because of bureaucracy, but because nobody wants to have their name on anything in case Stalin dies. (Which, obviously, he will.) It has to be a group decision so no one individual has his fingerprints on it.

Copyright Titan Comics

An interior page of The Death of Stalin depicts members of the Politburo, including Lavrentiy Beria and Vyacheslav Molotov (top), Nikita Kruschev (top left) and Georgy Malenkov (bottom right).

Once the great leader is dead, a vicious power struggle begins in the Politburo, which is the meat of the story. And to play these men, some of history’s worst people, Iannucci has assembled a terrific cast.

Acclaimed theater actor Simon Russell Beale (Penny Dreadful, The Legend of Tarzan) plays the depraved Lavrentiy Beria, head of the secret police and presumed successor. He’s a man who enjoys his work, which mostly consists of rape and murder.

The politician that history tells us will frustrate Beria’s ambitions and become the next leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khruschev, is played by the inestimable Steve Buscemi (Fargo, Boardwalk Empire). No one at the time expects this minor player to come out on top, but Iannucci says he played their competition as a clash of equals, since we know the ending.

Then there’s Jeffrey Tambor (Transparent, Arrested Development, The Larry Sanders Show) as the bumbling Georgy Malenkov, a Beria ally who’s in over his head. Ideological purist Vyacheslav Molotov – who remains a loyalist even after Stalin arrests his wife – is brought to life by Monty Python’s Michael Palin. Stalin’s drunken son Vasily is played by Rupert Friend (Homeland), and Stalin’s cynical daughter Svetlana is portrayed by Andrea Riseborough (Birdman). Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies) is World War II hero General Zhukov, who has his own agenda.

Best of all, Iannucci doesn’t require his actors to use Russian accents – or, in fact, any common accent at all. The result is a mix of Cockney, American, Liverpool and other inflections, which means authentic performances from actors who aren’t forced into a uniform box. Further, one can imagine that the original Russians would have a mix of accents as well – Stalin himself, for example, was from Soviet Georgia.

That’s pretty exciting, but the movie hasn’t been scheduled yet for general release. On the good news side, the graphic novel already hit comic shops July 5 and bookstores July 25.

Writing credit goes to Frenchman Fabien Nury, author of more than a dozen graphic novels, most of them published by Les Humanoids Associes. His experience shows in his ability to marry the absurd with the terrifying. His tone is pitch perfect, reflecting both the banality of evil and the horror of its effects on common people.

Photo provided by Titan Comics

Armando Iannucci, director of The Death of Stalin, an adaptation of the graphic novel. 

And while the graphic novel is clearly a work of fiction, it doesn’t stray far from the facts – nor does it need to.

“Although inspired by real events,” reads a disclaimer at the beginning of the GN, “this book is nonetheless a work of fiction: Artistic license has been used to construct a story from historical evidence that was at best patchy, at times partial and often contradictory.”

Iannucci also takes liberties in the film, noting in the video interview that he telescoped the timeline to maintain narrative urgency. However:

“Having said this,” the disclaimer continues, “the authors would like to make clear that their imaginations were scarcely stretched in the creation of this story, since it would have been impossible for them to come up with anything half as insane as the real events surrounding the death of Stalin.”

The artwork is by Thierry Robin, another Frenchman with a list of bandes dessinees (as comics are called in France) to his credit. His artwork is a bit more cartoony than I like, but bears a strong resemblance to American artist Kyle Baker, whose Cowboy Wally Show and other works are fan favorites.

Robin is especially gifted in creating characters with specific faces and body language. His characters don’t resemble the actors, of course, since the graphic novel came first. But all of them are easy to distinguish one from another, which is vital in a book so dependent on personalities.

And what personalities they are. Who knew plotting, treachery and fear could be so entertaining?

Find Captain Comics by email (capncomics@aol.com), on his website (captaincomics.ning.com), on Facebook (Captain Comics Round Table) or on Twitter (@CaptainComics).

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I've just re-read Alan Bullock's Hitler & Stalin:  Parallel Lives, as well as many other books on their lives and crimes against humanity.  I'll have to look for the GN and looking forward to the movie.  Nice write-up, Captain!

Thanks, Fred. I also read Parallel Lives, and enjoyed it. I came away thinking Stalin was the greater monster -- if, for no other reason, that he got away with it all, dying of natural causes.

I have read speculations that Stalin may have been poisoned, as part of a plot by potential victims of another purge. Either way, bit of grimm irony that he died a very painful death at least in part due to the intense fear he instilled in everyone around him. And he bears much responsibility for the appalling losses the Soviets suffered in the first year after Hitler's forces invaded Russia. I think that if in 1900 someone had published a novel based on the lives of Hitler & Stalin as they would play out over the next half century, it would have been regarded as outlandishly absurd, totally ridiculous that two such men, from such obscure backgrounds, could rise to such heights of power and cause so much carnage, destroying tens of millions of lives. Among the greatest horror stories of history.

If you had described to me just 10 years ago the last presidential election and the events since, I would have thought it ridiculous fantasy. As they say, truth is often stranger than fiction.

I wouldn't doubt that someone would try to poison Stalin, but he was famously paranoid and I can't believe he didn't have food tasters by the dozens. Still, the human mind is ingenious, especially when it's motivated by terror or hatred. Perhaps Beria or someone actually succeeded.

But yes, Stalin was responsible not only directly for the hundreds of thousands of deaths he ordered (including the famine in Ukraine) but also for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians by virtue of being a terrible military leader. Had he been a better man, he'd have let someone with more expertise handle the war, and not have executed so many military leaders -- the Soviets would still have won, but not at so high a cost.

I remember reading once that Stalin had every intention of double-crossing Hitler, but that Hitler double-crossed him first, which made Stalin furious. Was it in Parallel Lives I read that?

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