Steve Buscemi, Adrian McLoughlin, Jeffrey Tambor, Dermot Crowley, and Simon Russell Beale in The Death of Stalin. Credit: Nicola Dove

Black comedy doesn’t get any blacker than The Death of Stalin, which mines laughs from one of the most brutal and frightening regimes in modern history. Adapting a graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, British writer and director Armando Iannucci dramatizes the night in March 1953 when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin—who had killed 20 million people, sent 18 million to the gulags as slave labor, and exiled ten million more—keeled over of a cerebral hemorrhage, his subsequent death setting off a power struggle between the Communist Party, led by Nikita Khrushchev, and the state apparatus, led by Stalin’s first lieutenant and head of secret police, Lavrenti Beria. Seeing Kremlin historical figures played by such British and American comic actors as Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, and Michael Palin is a little weird at first, but Iannucci’s tasteless humor might be the only way to approach a subject so epic in its terror and tragedy.

The portly Shakespearean actor Simon Russell Beale is one of only a few men to have played Beria onscreen. After Khrushchev triumphed, Beria was tried for treason and executed, and his name was wiped from the Soviet history books. Very little was known about him in the West until the glasnost reforms of the 1990s began to open Soviet archives to historians, at which point the scale of his cruelty and sexual predation began to emerge. The Death of Stalin paints Beria in all his wickedness, scoring dark laughs every time the character opens his mouth. More impressively, though, Iannucci (creator of HBO’s Veep and the BBC’s The Thick of It) notes the sweeping liberal reforms that Beria tried to enact once Stalin had kicked the bucket, reforms that seemed utterly out of keeping with Beria’s security background. Ironically, this political about-face, and not his aggressive mobilization of the state security apparatus, may have been the real reason that the rest of Stalin’s inner circle turned against him.

According to biographer Amy Knight, Beria rose to prominence because he alone knew how to manipulate Stalin psychologically. Both men were raised in the Georgian tradition of heroic manhood, and yet both had grown up without fathers. After serving as chief of police in Georgia, Beria moved to Moscow in 1938 to lead the NKVD or secret police, administering the kill lists that Stalin used to get rid of his political enemies, and this position put Beria in a good position to indulge his boss’s growing paranoia. As Stalin’s right-hand man, Beria ran the gulag network of forced labor camps, supervised the evacuation of Soviet defense industries as the Nazis drove eastward in World War II, and oversaw the Soviets’ atomic bomb program. By the time Stalin took ill in 1953, however, the men had grown antagonistic, and Beria feared he might become the next enemy of the people pitched into a shallow grave.

The Death of Stalin approaches Beria’s chilling resumé with the casual cruelty of a Monty Python sketch. Coming out of a meeting with Stalin, Beria conveys another of their enemy lists to the secret police, reviewing the names as calmly as if they were a shop inventory: “Shoot her before him, but make sure he sees it. . . . On this one, kill him, take him to his church, dump him in the pulpit. . . . I’ll leave the rest up to you.” As he and an underling stroll down the hall, absorbed in conversation, gunshots sound from behind every door, and in the background some poor soul is being rolled down a flight of stairs. After Stalin’s last dinner party breaks up, Beria waits until Vyacheslav Molotov (Palin), the foreign affairs minister, has stepped into his car before telling the other men that Molotov is on the new kill list. “It would be cheaper and simpler if they just drove straight into a river,” muses Beria. “Sweet dreams!”

Beria’s job may have been homicide, but his hobby was rape. For years historians were unsure how seriously to credit the claims of Beria’s political enemies that he had seduced or forced himself on dozens of women, but the opening of his interrogation archives settled the matter. As Simon Sebag Montefiore writes in his book Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar, Beria indulged in “a Draculean sex life that combined love, rape, and perversity in almost equal measure. . . . It is often impossible to differentiate between women he seduced who went to him to plead for loved ones—and those women he simply kidnapped and raped.” The limits of Beria’s depravity are still unknown: in 2003, 50 years after his death, the Tunisian Embassy in Moscow, which occupies Beria’s former home, reported that construction work on the cellar had unearthed human bones.

The graphic novel hardly shies away from this sinister sideline. Nury and Robin introduce Beria in a darkened office, bending a woman over a desk and exclaiming “HAN HAN HAN HAN”” as he pounds away at her (this cartoon utterance is repeated later, when Beria is trying to revive Stalin with CPR). The movie isn’t quite as graphic, but Iannucci gets his point across. “I thank the union for bringing me so many devoted wives who fuck like sewing machines,” Beria tells his underling, and they enjoy a good laugh. After Stalin dies, Beria frees Molotov’s long-imprisoned wife, Polina, but incarcerates the pretty young maid who’s been looking after the prisoner. That night Beria enters the maid’s cell, doffing his coat, and Iannucci fades to black; the next morning she’s sent home with her parents and a bouquet of flowers.

Iannucci, who was born in Scotland to Italian immigrant parents, wisely drops the old movie convention of actors speaking Russian-accented English, and this creates some distance from the material; hearing Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) speak with a cockney accent and Khrushchev (Buscemi) riff like a New York nightclub comedian pulls The Death of Stalin toward the surreal. Yet as Nury notes in his disclaimer to the graphic novel, “It would have been impossible for [me] to come up with anything half as insane as the real events surrounding the death of Stalin.” After the dictator collapsed in the bedroom of his dacha, urinating all over himself, hours passed before anyone checked on him, because his guards were afraid to intrude on his privacy. Even more time passed while his inner circle debated where to go for medical help; because Stalin had just carried out a purge of Jewish doctors who were supposedly conspiring to poison him, no one wanted to take responsibility for bringing in a physician who might later be accused of treason.

The Death of Stalin records this real-life madness, exploiting it for cheap laughs (Stalin’s men keep stepping and kneeling on the urine-soaked carpet as they attend to him) but also carefully tracking the political skullduggery. Both Khrushchev and Beria recognize Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough), as a major strategic asset, and there’s a riotous scene in which the two rivals race from different directions toward her limousine when she arrives, each hoping to comfort her first. Beria has the ear of Stalin’s fatuous, weak-willed deputy, Georgy Malenkov (Tambor), and Khrushchev recruits the defense minister, Nicolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi), in his scheme to outflank Beria by bringing in the Soviet army. The power struggle turns tragic when Khrushchev countermands Beria’s order to shut down the rail lines while Stalin lies in state and a flood of mourners into Moscow results in Soviet security forces slaughtering 1,500 people.

Iannucci may have turned Nury’s somber novel into something of a goof, but he also takes a more complex view of Beria, who proposes amnesty for low-level prisoners and reaches out to other world governments. In fact Beria’s reforms were even more extensive: he reorganized the domestic security forces, instituted a purge of the foreign intelligence service, and repudiated the Doctors’ Plot that had been one of Stalin’s favorite paranoid fantasies. Soviet relations with the U.S. and with Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia, who had defied Stalin, began to thaw slightly. Most important, Beria signaled his support for nationalist movements in some of the Soviet republics, which Stalin had tried to crush with his long-standing policy of cultural Russification. Beria’s latter move may have been a bridge too far, threatening the stability of the Soviet bloc; when economic collapse in the German Democratic Republic brought protesters into the streets of East Berlin in June 1953, Beria was blamed for the chaos, and Khrushchev finally found the opening he needed.

Reconciling Beria’s monstrous behavior with his liberal reforms isn’t easy, especially for Khrushchev. “You’re the good guy now?” he sputters after Beria has introduced his amnesty program. “You locked up half the nation! You beat them, you raped them, you killed them!” Beria replies, “Yes, and now I’m releasing them.” After Beria has been shot and his corpse set on fire, Khrushchev rails at him: “I will bury you in history, you hear me, you fat fucker?” He did—after replacing Stalin as general secretary of the party, Khrushchev rolled back his predecessor’s program of state terror, though he stopped well short of the goals Beria had championed. At one point Khrushchev, urging Svetlana to seek asylum in Vienna, warns her, “This is how people get killed—when their stories don’t fit.” The Death of Stalin is a priceless political satire, but what’s really impressive is how hard Iannucci tries to fit Beria’s story into the puzzle.  v