The greatest political satires — of which Armando Iannucci’s “The Death of Stalin” is instantly one — understand that tragedy and farce are indistinguishable under a dictatorship. Totalitarianism bends the laws of physics so that words are weaponized into their opposites and paranoia is an accepted norm; life becomes so horrible that one has to laugh and so laughable that one has to cry. And there’s this, too: Ridicule is what a tyrant fears most, because it means his people are no longer afraid.
Set in Moscow in March of 1953, “The Death of Stalin” is about that particular title event, but it has been cast and is played as if it were British music-hall comedy or Hollywood screwball — it’s equal parts Monty Python and Preston Sturges. When I tell you that bug-eyed Steve Buscemi plays Nikita Krushchev, that ex-Python Michael Palin plays Vyacheslav Molotov — he of the namesake flaming cocktail — and that Jeffrey Tambor (recently of “Transparent”) plays Stalin’s designated successor Georgy Malenkov, you may expect the silliest of knockdown romps. And that’s what you get. Except that this movie bleeds and bleeds hard, and the blood that runs is innocent.
After five seasons as creator of TV’s “Veep” and as the director of the lethal 2009 political comedy “In the Loop,” Iannucci has proved himself a past master at locating the ludicrous in the halls of power. “The Death of Stalin” just brings the outrage closer to the surface, which has the odd effect of making the comedy more desperately funny. The film opens with a Radio Moscow classical concert that has to be played twice in its entirety just so Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) can have a keepsake recording; this would be a marvelous bit of invented absurdity except for the fact that it actually happened. (Nine years earlier, but still.)
Spoiler alert: Stalin dies. But not after a handful of scenes in which he’s portrayed as a cheerfully vulgar mobster surrounded by a gaggle of cronies and suck-ups: the exasperated Krushchev, the spineless Molotov, the vain idiot Malenkov. The best people, really. All of them are shabby little men, and all of them are terrified of Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the gleefully sadistic head of Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD.
Beria has a list and he updates it every day; the people whose names are on the list are rounded up, interrogated, shot. Why? Because they’re on the list and therefore guilty. Iannucci’s camera tracks fluidly alongside Beria as he carries out his duties at NKVD HQ; we glimpse hollow-eyed sons informing on fathers, young girls picked out for that evening’s rape, bodies pratfalling down flights of stairs in assisted “suicides.” The horror here happens out of the corner of our eyes.
Which somehow makes the jokes more scabrously intense, the dissonance between the politicians’ petty power plays and the suffering of their subjects grounding the farce in fury. As Stalin’s body lies stiffening at his dacha in the country, the members of the Central Committee strike alliances and counter-alliances and counter-counter-alliances.
More players appear: Lazar Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley), the architect of the 1932 Ukraine famine; Foreign Trade Minister Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse); Deputy Chairman Nikolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi, looking rather like a Botoxed Eric Idle). Midway through, Jason Isaacs — Lucius Malfoy of the “Harry Potter” movies — enters with macho pomp as Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov, head of the Russian army. “What’s a war hero got to do to get some lubrication around here?” he barks.
Their maneuverings, backpedalings, and backstabbings have more than a whiff of vaudeville soft-shoe, and the dialogue can tie itself into knots worthy of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine. “I think I misspoke when I said ‘No problem,’ ” quavers Tambor’s Malenkov. “I meant to say ‘No. Problem.’ ” In one scene, Buscemi’s Krushchev tries to assure Stalin’s daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough, toggling expertly between intelligence and emotionalism) that no harm will come to her, and that single word — “harm” — suddenly becomes a knife pointed back at Krushchev’s chest. The word is now unspeakable and the comedy rises from his attempts to speak around it.
Buscemi is magnificent, but all the players rise to the occasion; you may especially cherish Rupert Friend (“Homeland”) as Stalin’s demented alcoholic son Vasily and Olga Kurylenko (“Quantum of Solace”) as pianist Maria Yudina, the film’s elegant and only note of genuine conscience.
“The Death of Stalin” finally comes down to a battle of wits between Beale’s fearsome little Beria — a “flesh lump in a waistcoat,” as Field Marshal Zhukov refers to him — and Krushchev, who’s just another of Stalin’s toadies at the start and who simply may think a hair faster and with a smidgen more luck than the others. Because life is provisional in a totalitarian state — because you can be dragged off and killed for no reason at any moment — logic becomes useless and survival becomes paramount. Iannucci understands that such contortions are ridiculous, especially at the top, and that laughing at them is a revolutionary act both liberating and necessary.
How revolutionary? Vladimir Putin’s Ministry of Culture has banned “The Death of Stalin” from being shown in Russia. There can be no greater praise.
THE DEATH OF STALIN
Directed by Armando Iannucci. Written by Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin, Peter Fellows, and Fabien Nury, based on a comic book by Nury and Thierry Robin. Starring Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Simon Russell Beale, Olga Kurylenko, Adrian McLoughlin, Andrea Riseborough, Jason Isaacs, Rupert Friend. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square. 106 minutes. R (language throughout, violence, some sexual references).