Satire is, in some respects, supposed to make the uncomfortable or even tragic funny. Or at least somewhat relatable. It’s meant to take the figures down several pegs, which is why the genre is usually filled with high-society types or other powerful characters. That model is being applied to this week’s The Death of Stalin, which aims to make comedy out of the era of Russian history when Josef Stalin, who had ruled the country with an iron fist, died and the political infighting and jousting that followed as everyone tried to seize power.
Written and directed by Armando Iannucci (“Veep”), the movie stars Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov, Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov and Jason Isaacs as Field Marshal Zhukov among others. Each one is fumbling over themselves, creating short-lived alliances with others just as quickly as they’re breaking the ones they’ve already made. They’re backstabbing and assassinating as fast as they can.
There were a number of posters created for the U.K. and other international markets, including a series of character posters that feature everyone posed against the Soviet flag, a look of either stoic heroism or extreme paranoia on his or her face. Another had a couple characters playing tug-of-war with Stalin’s mustache, a great way to represent the struggle for his legacy.
What appears to be the sole U.S. theatrical poster uses the same conceit as those character one-sheets only combines everyone so they’re posed standing alongside each other in mock unity as Stalin’s casket is carried through a crowd below. Above that are a few critics quotes praising the film for its sharp satire and wonderful performances. Iannucci’s other credits, which are going to be somewhat more recognizable to the audience, are listed here while at the bottom the movie labeled “A comedy of terrors,” which is pretty solid.
It’s 1953 in Russia as the trailer opens and we see the country lives in fear of Stalin, who soon dies. That sets off all sorts of internal machinations and game-playing as various people put together their own attempts to consolidate their own power. There’s lying, backstabbing, machismo and other maneuverings.
That trailer was a bit premature, at least when it came to a domestic release.
The U.S., release was heralded by a tongue-in-cheek teaser shot in the style of an old-fashioned newsreel that briefly covered how well it had been received overseas.
The full trailer isn’t all that different from what had been used overseas, showing quite a bit of the same footage. The madcap hijinks are amped up a bit andt there are some nice notes around the edges, but the message is essentially the same. What comes through loud and clear is that this is a madcap farce with everyone plotting with and against everyone else to try and hold on to power, despite the fact they’re all idiots. It makes no sense and isn’t anywhere near historically accurate, but that’s not at all what the goal seems to be so it’s all good.
A red-band version was released just a couple weeks before the movie came out that hit many of the same beats, it’s just with a few more curse words and other details.
Online and Social
There’s not much going on over at the single page IFC Films has created for the movie. On that page you’ll be able to just watch the trailer, read a brief synopsis, check out the poster, see the cast and crew list and that’s about it. They don’t appear to be linked anywhere on the page but the studio did add Twitter and Facebook profiles for the film. Notably, both of those are written in the style of a Soviet Central Committee type of entity, with lots of comments about how the Party has approved or requires you to do this or that. Nice way to have fun with voice on social to further the comedy of the product being marketed.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Some online ads were run that used the movie’s key art. And the trailers were, at various times, used as promoted posts on social media. I’m not aware of any TV advertising that was done.
Media and Publicity
The movie appeared at the recent Toronto Film Festival, where it was largely hailed as a great political satire that shows this kind of stupidity is apparent in all governments throughout history. The all-star cast was especially called out as uniformly giving outstanding performances. It then also screened at the Sundance Film Festival, but only after a U.S. theatrical release had been scheduled and some marketing began. It was also notable as one of the four films at the festival featuring Andrea Riseborough, a significant achievement for the young actor.
There was a nice pop of publicity for the film when, predictably, it was discovered it had been banned from screening in Russia which has zero sense of humor about this stuff.
Tambor has been one of the actors caught up in wide-ranging allegations of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, allegations that were proven out by an Amazon investigation resulting in him being fired from “Transparent,” on which he’s starred. It also lead to him being removed from some promotional artwork for this movie.
Iannucci spoke about the somewhat obvious parallels between his film and the current U.S. political situation at a screening, pointing out that this is what satire is supposed to do: Take down powerful figures. He also was interviewed about how he decided to tackle the imposing task of turning something quite so tragic into a dark comedy and why he wanted to tell a(nother) political satire story here in a story that included comments from Isaac and other members of the cast.
Buscemi appeared on “Late Night” to talk about how this was kind of his dream role and a lot of fun to play.
Look, I’m all in for political satire. Fire up Wag the Dog or something and I’m on board. So this hits me right where I live, presenting a sharp-tongued, funny take on the deadly stakes politicians often play for, represented here quite literally. Put that concept in the hands of actors like Isaacs (who doesn’t often get to play comedy), Buscemi and others and I’m sold in a big, big way.
My only complaint here is that I wish there were more of the campaign. Even taking into account the aspects of the marketing that wasn’t for domestic U.S. audiences, this wasn’t a huge push. And the trailers kept hitting more or less the same notes, which is fine but also somewhat limiting. It would have been great to have either seen some wholly new takes on the trailers or the release of a handful of clips to provide more complete glimpses into actual scenes. Those may be coming and I can’t wait, just as I can’t wait to see the whole movie.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.