Sympathy for the sociopath. It’s something very few of us seem to be able to dredge up these days, and made The Death of Stalin‘s release last month, its tiptoe between humour and horror, that much more compelling. One doesn’t need a sophisticated understanding of Soviet politics to follow the aftermath of the dictator’s death, but an appreciation for political satire and a stomach for dark comedy are essential. So, if director Armando Iannucci’s second feature-length effort had you amused before appalled (or at least a healthy balance of the two) and you’re hunting for more of the same, then look no further. The following are 6.5 films you should watch if you liked The Death of Stalin*.
* Peter Hitchens types need not apply.
1. Four Lions (2010)
This one is directed by Chris Morris, long-time collaborator of Iannucci’s – the pair worked together on Veep and On The Hour, a comedy radio show in the early 90s which parodied current affairs broadcasting. Were there to be a guided tour of British black comedy, Four Lions would undoubtedly be one of the first stops. The film is a satire of jihad terrorism, following a group of inept radicals from Sheffield, of all places, as they plan and attempt to execute an attack on the London Marathon. If this sounds like the premise for a tasteless 90 minutes of comedic drudgery, a South Park style exercise in offence, then fear not. Muslim extremists are the butt of the joke, but it’s their zealotry which becomes the subject of mockery rather than their religious leanings – believe it or not, there’s no Islamophobia here. The film simply holds up a mirror to the imbecility of fanaticism, has it take a good, hard look at itself as it swallows its SIM card to stop the feds from tracking it down, and sends it on its way.
2. Nightcrawler (2014)
If you found yourself bizarrely charmed by the ruminations of the Russian cabinet, despite the conniving, conspiratorial nature of each man among its ranks, then allow Jake Gyllenhaal’s charmingly unsettling stringer Lou Bloom to take you on a tour of the violent underbelly of Los Angeles. A brutal undressing of both contemporary news reporting and consumer culture, antihero Bloom transitions back and forth between loveable rogue to full-frontal psychopath with barely a pause for breath, but never leaves us under the impression he’s about to do good. Struggling to find work, he takes up a career as a freelance photojournalist, aiming to sell recordings of crime scenes to local news stations. After a few lucky breaks, the success goes to his head and he starts meddling in the violence he seeks to document, sticking his fingers into pies where they really don’t belong. Despite all this, despite his abuse and manipulation of a news anchor, despite his involvement in a near-fatal car accident, you can’t help but end up ruefully rooting for the guy. You don’t necessarily want to see him get away with murder – but you feel you might just die yourself if you don’t get to see what he does next.
3.5 The Stepford Wives (1975 and 2004)
Okay, this particular entry is why this list is at a .5, rather than a whole number. The Stepford Wives, the original incarnation of which is Ira Levin’s 1972 novel of the same name, sees Joanna, either a photographer or television producer depending on your chosen telling, relocate with her husband and children to live in sleepy seclusion in Stepford. Here, she discovers the women of the town are all unambitious, obsessed with housework, and impossibly beautiful. Seeing as the story is now 45 years old, I think we can do away with spoiler warnings: a grand conspiracy in suburbia sees the wives of Stepford dispatched and transformed into ‘fembots’, creatures of limited intellect who exist only to wait on their husbands’ hand and foot, bowing to their every whim. Essentially, it’s the white woman’s Get Out. If you can’t quite wrap your head around why many found The Death of Stalin so offensive, try sampling the 2004 comedy version of Stepford straight after the original film, to see this dystopian nightmare played for laughs. A scene where the remote control for one fembot is discovered and manipulated to cause her breasts to inflate so much she topples down the staircase under their weight isn’t particularly funny in the first place, and becomes even more tasteless when viewed in this new light. The Death of Stalin is indubitably a better movie than 2004’s Stepford, but the manipulation of the boundaries of general decorum remain poignant in both pictures, if not for very different reasons.
4.5 In the Loop (2009)
Something of an obvious choice for this list, Iannucci’s cinematic debut In the Loop is a spin-off of popular television series The Thick of It, a contemporary satire on the state of modern British politics. Much like the TV show that spawned it, this film takes on a mockumentary style, handheld camera floating around the actors as they panic, argue, and try to avoid all-out war. It’s not as stylish as The Death of Stalin – Soviet Russia lends itself to some particularly captivating cinematography which is hard to find jolting through the corridors of Washington DC in pursuit of a furiously swearing Peter Capaldi. And it’s not quite as dark – the main villain of the piece is an excessively aggressive PR executive, and pales in comparison to the insidious mendacity of Simon Russell Beale’s Lavrentiy Beria, who spends his spare time commissioning violent executions (“shoot her before him but make sure he sees it”) and handing out bunches of flowers to the victims of the sexual assaults he commits. But it’s very much cut from the same cloth, following a hopeless troupe of career politicians as they desperately scramble to develop some vague idea of what fresh hell awaits them each time they turn a corner. If you liked The Death of Stalin, you’ll buy into Iannucci’s particular brand of humour across the board.
5.5 Dr. Strangelove (1964)
The Cold War satire to end all Cold War satires, it’s undeniable how much cinema owes to Dr. Strangelove. In this classic addition to the Kubrick canon, released hot off the tail of the Cuban Missile Crisis, everyone’s favourite purveyor of pitch dark humour decided to make a film about what could happen if the wrong person pressed the proverbial big red button – and proceeded to play it for laughs. Presented to an audience living in fear of the mutually assured destruction which many felt could ensue at any moment, Kubrick sought, as all talented satirists do, to highlight the absurdity in the darkness. Adapted from the Peter George novel Red Alert, a straight thriller, Kubrick reworked the story into black comedy – fascinatingly however, the director chose to fashion the film’s visual scheme as though nothing had changed. Strangelove has the mise en scène of a drama, but the dialogue and caricatures of character which mocked the current affairs of the day, instead of taking them in earnest. Much like Stepford, it translates serious source material into slapstick, and received similar criticisms upon release to The Death of Stalin for making far too light of a deeply solemn period of history.
6.5 Look Who’s Back (2015)
Described by Slate magazine as “like Ali G but with Hitler”, Look Who’s Back splices history into the modern day. Waking up in Berlin, 2014, on the spot where the Führerbunker once lay, the real Hitler has come back to life, because… of course he has. Regeneration left basically unexplained, after a comedic sequence wherein he attempts to reground himself in the modern world, Hitler decides to simply carry on with what he started. Narrative scenes are juxtaposed with real life sequences, where lead actor Oliver Masucci approaches people in character to see what their responses will be – spoiler alert, they’re not all the tolerant, cosmopolitan Berliners we’ve come to believe are the norm. Making light of men who’ve committed genocide is no easy feat, but as Look Who’s Back sees the nation overcome by Führermania, it’s hard to deny that Hitler is a figure easy to ridicule. He resembles a cartoon character, a particularly menacing Scooby-Doo villain, with his toothbrush moustache and slicked down hair. And Stalin too becomes a figure of fun in Iannucci’s work, transformed into a bumbling East Londoner who wouldn’t feel out of place at a British family Christmas, that uncle no one really likes but who must be invited, it’s polite, who makes a few racist remarks about the new neighbours and then gets quietly drunk and falls asleep in front of It’s a Wonderful Life on GOLD before 4pm. It’s jarring and uncomfortable, seeing these men who slaughtered millions reduced to awkward, doddering fools – but in a world where Donald Trump is president of the United States, maybe it’s better to point and laugh at our leaders before, and not after, they commit atrocities.