A seemingly unlikely source of humour, this dark comedy takes a look at the final days of the "Great Terror" and the chaotic aftermath of Stalin's death, when his closest allies in the party begin jockeying for power. The film treads a fine line between horror and comedy. In the early scenes we see an orchestral performance that is going out live over the radio. When Stalin sends a message to say he would like a recording of the night's concert, which they have failed to record, the technicians are forced to recreate the entire show again from the beginning. It is hilarious to see them persuading the orchestra to begin again, and taking random members of the public off the street to fill out the audience, some of whom have already departed, but at the same time terrifying to think that the people were living in so much fear of this dictator. Similarly in the high commands talks of "disappearances" of certain people there is a sense of laughing through gritted teeth. Everything is on a knife edge that could easily tip towards comedy or tragedy. When Stalin does die we find that those around him are spectacularly unprepared for what follows, having given little thought to it. Opportunities for advancement sit beside the threat of execution for those not showing themselves to be absolutely loyal to the party or the departed leader. Everyone has skeletons in the closet, everyone is suspect, but likewise everyone has a lot to gain from the recent death.
Written and directed by Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It, Veep) and long-time writing collaborators David Schneider and Ian Martin, and based on a comic book of the same name, the film has an interesting tone. There are slapstick elements and over-the-top moments, but there is always a dread underlying them. The humour often relies on the peculiar situations that characters end up in as they wrangle for power. The outstanding cast play a key part in bringing the script to life. Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Tambor and others have such great delivery that it makes scenes more entertaining than they might appear on the page. There is even a certain sense of "Carry On Stalin" to proceedings, with the wise decision to have the actors use their own accents, or even exaggerated versions of Western accents, that helps lighten the mood.
It is important to poke fun at the ludicrous nature of these regimes and this is something that the film does exceptionally well. There are a number of memorable lines and moments and a few stand-out performances. They have managed to mine this seemingly unpromising subject for all its comic potential. A good political satire about power and the failings of dictatorships.