The master satirist behind Veep and The Thick of It has made a comedy about the terror of Stalin-era Russia.
His first feature, 2009’s In the Loop, was an Anglo-American spin-off of his series skewering Blair-era British politics, The Thick of It. His second is The Death of Stalin, a black comedy about the 1953 expiration of the Soviet dictator and the subsequent power struggle among his craven minions.
If that doesn’t sound particularly funny, well, it did start out as a comic. The movie is based on a French graphic novel that Iannucci and his co-writers adapted with plenty of ratatat dialogue.
So the man who created such memorable fictitious figures of 21st-century democracy as the extravagantly profane enforcer Malcolm Tucker and the vain, inept US Vice President Selina Meyer has turned his attention to real figures of 20th-century Soviet communism, though the casting gives some hint as to how serious a history lesson the film provides: it stars, among others, Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev and Michael Palin as Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov.
But it was another famous Russian who got Iannucci interested in going back to the USSR. A longtime classical music fan, he is a great admirer of Dimitri Shostakovich, who was the target of censorship and terrifying repression, including two major denunciations, by Stalin’s regime, which regarded his work as “counter-revolutionary”.
“The story behind that, and the fact that artists had to live under this constant creative terror, always fascinated me. I knew after The Thick of It and Veep that I wanted to do something European rather than American, since I had just spent the past four or five years there. I knew the fourth season of Veep was going to be my last. I was also thinking about dictatorship and autocracy and how a country, a movement, a crowd, can be cajoled and terrorised by one person. So I was mulling that at the back of my mind when the publisher of the graphic novel The Death of Stalin approached me.”
Why did you walk away from Veep?
After four years of that and having done The Thick of It, I had done 10 years of politics. I felt after four seasons I had given it my all. I sort of felt I’d said what I wanted to say. And then we won the Emmy and I felt good. That’s the perfect point. The cast are amazing and I knew the show could keep going.
The film is based on a graphic novel. Presumably, that makes it easy?
When I read it, I thought, “Yeah, I want to make this.” The question was how to put it up on screen. It’s got to have comedy dialogue. Structurally, the graphic novel is very linear and it jumps – in the second half it jumps in time. We’ve telescoped everything so the tussle between Khrushchev and Beria [head of Stalin’s secret police] takes place at the funeral.
Steve Buscemi is rather skinnier than the character he plays.
Well, if you look at Khrushchev in 1953, he’s thinner. I think he grew fat on power.
And Michael Palin hasn’t appeared in a movie for 20 years. His Molotov reminded me of what he did in his early days.
He comes obviously from another tradition and it’s great to see him on screen. There is something Pythonesque when Molotov does this lengthy speech, which is so full of twisted logic and about-turns and trying to rationalise everything that’s going on. It’s great to see Michael nail that.
The movie was shot in England. Have you been to Russia?
Yeah, several times, for the film. We went to Stalin’s dacha and we went to Stalin’s bunker. There is a nuclear bomb down there. I don’t think it’s primed. You can do a controlled launch. You are ushered up onto a stage and you have to turn some dials together. It’s eerie. They switch all the lights off to show what it would be like if there was a nuclear strike.
Stalin is still around in Russia. I was staying at a hotel and his portrait was up there with Brezhnev’s. Under Putin, authority figures have been given a profile. You’ve got Stalin up there. You’ve also got a statue of Tsar Nicholas II in Moscow now. Centralised authority figures fit the image that Putin wants.
I was asking some of the younger people there what they are taught in school about Stalin. They said some people say he killed millions, other people say he industrialised Russia and made it a superpower and won the great patriotic war. You decide.
So there’s no hiding the facts but he’s still relatively unjudged.
How do you make a comedy about tyranny? And should you?
My feeling was I knew it would be funny. But I thought let’s not call it a comedy. Let’s make it funny, but let’s make it about terror. Let’s just show what happens when people are terrified and the comedy comes from the performances – the fact that people have to check everything they say.
In Russia, we came across these joke books which used to circulate in the 1940s and 1950s, at the height of the Great Terror. People were telling jokes about Stalin and jokes about Beria and writing them down. If you were caught in possession of one of these joke books you would be shot. This sense of knowing people being taken away on a nightly basis was so prevalent that you had to find some other outlet for that kind of emotion, and it came out in humour.
So gallows humour as gulag humour?
Yeah, gulag humour. One of the strange facts we found out was that when the news of Stalin’s death was reported, they actually cried in the gulags. So there were people there who could not believe it was Stalin that put them there; it was someone else, some underling, Some enemy somewhere had done it, not Stalin.
We shot the film before the rise of Donald Trump, but when I have showed it to people, a lot of them have been saying how strangely relevant it seems, because there is a lot of talk about truth and alternative reality and a new narrative and that is the old narrative and this is a new Russia.
They changed history. They airbrushed photographs. They came up with new facts, alternative facts.
The Death of Stalin is screening now.
This article was first published in the March 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.