It is said that during Stalin’s reign, if he gave a speech the audience had to applaud enthusiastically and keep on applauding; if you stopped first the police would identify you and you would be suitably punished. In theory I suppose they could still be applauding today.
So the opening scene of The Death of Stalin is entirely believable. Which is no surprise because it is true. Well nearly. In the film version Stalin is listening to a concert broadcast on Radio Moscow. As it finishes he phones the studio and asks for a recording and he’ll have a driver sent round for it. The only problem is the performance isn’t being recorded. If Stalin doesn’t get the recording then the consequences will be dire; the director, in a panic has the doors locked trying to keep the audience and the orchestra from leaving. He’s a little late and the conductor and some of the audience have left. So while some flunkies are dispatched to corral people off the street, an assistant is sent to wake up another conductor. He panics, assuming someone has denounced him and is saying a tearful goodbye to his wife when the truth is revealed and he sets off to conduct a Mozart symphony in his pyjamas. When the recording is in the can the relief is palpable.
And why is that only nearly true? Because in the real story the first conductor they sought was so drunk they had to send him away; the film director decided that was too farcical for a film!
This is a great film, a real laugh out loud comedy, but counterpointed by some very sombre moments. It is a 15 Certificate (not sure what that equates to in the US or elsewhere – it means the censor thinks only 15 year olds and above should see it) – and that’s because there’s a lot of swearing (the director is Armando Iannucci, responsible for the most visceral and effective swearing ever in the Thick of It) and a reasonable amount of violence.
The characters are all real people and the circumstances are also real – the power struggle in the ten days between Stalin’s death and his funeral. The machinations, the ingrained terror making even the most senior player mind their words and be wary of who is listening is a fertile ground for comedy. The thing is, you just have to read the history of that period to know the basic facts are all true; it was bloody and bloody awful and, well, that makes for a barrel of laughs. Maybe it’s just me.
If you’ve not come across Simon Russell-Beale who is an actor mostly seen on stage in the UK, then you are in for a treat. He plays the head of the Secret Police – the NKVD – Lavrentiy Beria. Khrushchev is played by Steve Buscemi and Michael Palin is a fabulously neurotic Foreign Secretary Molotov.
The plot can’t be spoiled, the jokes are not played for laughs and so much is tragedy that you cringe as you laugh at the complete absurdity of what is happening. I really defy you to fail to enjoy it.
Because we had time I indulged in a mushroom burger at GBK which is the Great Burger something. A restaurant anyway. I added some sweet potato fries and was asked if I was vegan. Proudly, dare I say smugly, I said, ‘Well, you know, I suppose…’ at which point the waitress told me I wouldn’t be wanting the bacon mayo dip then. ‘Ah well, when I say I’m a vegan, it’s more I’m in a process towards it…’ I still didn’t get the dip.
Never mind we had time for a milk shake too. I love the salted caramel ones which is a shame because they gave me strawberry. At least no one got a raspberry…