Though touted as the latest film from the director of Liquid Sky, the 1982 cult favorite that helped define the New Wave scene, Slava Tsukerman's Stalin's Wife won't inspire anyone to break out the hallucinatory drugs in order to enhance the experience. Outside of a few spastic collage sequences and a faux-Russian horn-and-percussion score that could serve as Muzak for a madhouse, Tsukerman's bone-dry documentary is more aptly suited to bore PBS viewers and history students. Sorting through the conflicting personal and archival accounts of Nadezhda Alliluyeva, a young revolutionary who married Joseph Stalin at 16 and was found dead under mysterious circumstances 14 years later, Tsukerman tries to discover truths that were hopelessly obscured by the establishment. But clarity is the last thing expected from the director of Liquid Sky, and the film immediately and permanently loses its way amid a mass of thick Russian names, tangled family trees, and contradictory testimony.
Historians and descendants dispute many things about Alliluyeva's life and death, but a few basic facts are universally accepted. Raised by two Georgian revolutionaries, Alliluyeva first met Stalin as a child when he escaped from prison and her parents offered him shelter. After the revolution, she worked for Lenin as a confidential code clerk, and she became Stalin's second wife in 1919, inspired as many women were by his devotion to equality among working people. By all accounts, her marriage to Stalin, a man 23 years her senior, was fraught with tension and fighting, especially once he transitioned from a revolutionary idealist to a murderous dictator, and word of his treachery got back to her. One morning, Alliluyeva was discovered dead with a revolver by her side, but debate rages on about whether she killed herself or was murdered by her husband.
Tsukerman plundered the secret Kremlin archives and tracked down several of Alliluyeva's surviving relatives, but he doesn't turn up any great history-making revelations. Provocative subjects, like Alliluyeva's deflowering on a train ride with Stalin when she was a teenager–was it love, or rape?–are resolved pretty easily (everyone agrees: love), and other issues, like the events leading up to her death, are only made murkier by testimonials. And Tsukerman never follows up on the chilling possibility that Alliluyeva's mother, known for her extramarital affairs, included Stalin among her suitors, leading him to suggest to his young wife, "The devil knows whose daughter you are. Maybe mine." Though serviceable as a primer on Soviet history under Stalin, the film's sloppy assemblage of dull interviews and stock footage never comes close to illuminating a life that the Russian people have long cherished as a precious enigma.