“Stalin’s Wife” is a documentary on the curious and often mysterious life of Nadezhda Alliluyev (1901-1932), the wife of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Their 14-year marriage was marked with endless rumors and tales, from just how they met (either Stalin rescued her from drowning as a child to Stalin raping her on a train) to how they parted (Nadezhda was found dead in her bedroom of a gunshot wound, but whether it was suicide or murder depends on whom you speak with). The 20-year age difference between them also led to tales that Stalin was actually her father (it is known that Stalin had an affair with Nadezhda’s mother some time before the girl was born).
If “Stalin’s Wife” doesn’t provide solid answers, it nonetheless offers a fascinating tapestry of love, madness, politics, suspicions and jealousies against one of the most tumultuous backdrops of the 20th century. Incorporating rare newsreel footage and family photographs with interviews of members from Stalin’s immediate and extended families plus various historians and the widows of the former Kremlin elite, “Stalin’s Wife” provides an extraordinary journey into the darker corners of Russian history.
If there is a catch here, it is the unmistakable problem that the film is very ordinary in its design and execution. It’s basically a mix of talking heads (mostly speaking in Russian with droning English narration running over them) laced into the vintage footage. The documentary was shot on video, but the color and sound is often flat and even a bit amateurish at times (microphones clearly dangle off the lapels of some of those being interviewed). Slava Tsukerman, who is best known for the underground favorite “Liquid Sky,” helmed this project, yet its production is so quotidian that it is hard to imagine it was made by the person who created that brilliant cult classic years ago.