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Or take an event which neither the novel nor the film depict. Immediately after Beria’s arrest, the Politburo went to the Bolshoi to attend the première of Yuri Shaporin’s The Decembrists. At every interval in this opera about a coup which failed at considerable cost to its plotters, they dashed out to make phone calls to discover whether or not Beria had staged a counter-coup, before returning to their seats to try to sit impassively through the next part of the performance. The first indication that the public received of Beria’s fall was when Pravda listed the Politburo members present at the Bolshoi, and Beria’s name was not there.

There is humour in both incidents, but a humour inseparable from terror, which is not funny at all. The film is wise to this, and is itself in many places emotionally iridescent. It raises uncertain laughs, which are suddenly cut down. It moves from a hilarious scene of the meeting convened after Stalin’s death, to a mass execution which is messily halted by the delivery of a Politburo decree. The comedy here is not so much black as ice-cold and pale. Beria’s discomfiture at his undignified arrest arouses the viewers’ triumphal amusement, until the arrest turns into a lynching, and the comedy quickly sickens. A rueful laugh is raised by the closing surtitle informing the audience that Khrushchev is eventually toppled in his turn, but over the final credits people are wiped out of photos one by one, to Shostakovich’s music.

Such troubled comedy requires and receives confident performances. To me the standout is not the much-praised Simon Russell Beale’s Beria (he is good, but this is a relatively straightforward villainous part), but Jeffrey Tambor’s hilariously witless Malenkov, and Andrea Riseborough’s bizarrely bizarre Svetlana. Between them, the ensemble produces some purely comic moments, such as when Stalin is dying and pointing at a picture of a lamb being fed from a horn. This happened, and Khrushchev seems unaware of the comedy in his account of how he immediately expounded to the others what this meant. The film permissibly broadens this into a hilarious contest of interpretations between competing Politburo members. Another gag is the search for a small girl with whom Stalin once posed, so that she can appear with Malenkov at the funeral. Once they have established that they want a girl who now looks like that girl did then, not the same girl, and once they have found and obtained such a girl, it turns out that only her hand can be seen waving at the crowds over the Kremlin parapet. But for the most part the humour is adulterated. Responsibly so.

Such humour can best be understood in relation to the film’s major model, The Great Farewell (Великое Прощание). This is a 75-minute film of Stalin’s funeral and related ceremonies on the occasion of his death which splices purpose-shot colour footage with black-and-white newsreel. It was intended for general release, but was dropped because of Beria’s fall (he could not easily be excised from it), and was in the end only released after the Soviet Union had collapsed.

Its influence on Iannucci’s film is palpable: the details of the coffin and the room in which it stood, the Politburo members standing by, the photogenic little girl, Beria’s dress sense and movements. Stalin’s son’s funeral speech in the Iannucci film, in which he hilariously cycles through the names of all the Soviet republics, may have been inspired by The Great Farewell’s iterated tours of Soviet capitals in which ceremonies are taking place, glossing the country concerned when this might not be known (for example, “Tirana — capital of Albania”).
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