With Veep, In the Loop and The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci seems to have a monopoly on political ineptitude – only for real-life players to start muscling in on his turf. Not that the affable 53-year-old writer and director (who helped bring the equally inept fictional broadcaster Alan Partridge to our screens) appears especially worried.
In Iannucci’s new film, The Death of Stalin, he creates a brilliant imagining of the tense manoeuvring that took place after Josef Stalin died in 1953. Based on a graphic novel, it’s deeply irreverent, shocking at points, yet motivated by a righteous morality that balances comedy and drama on a knife edge. As Iannucci says: “I’ve been telling people it’s a funny film, but they’ll be a bit terrified, too...”
What’s the film about, in a nutshell?
It’s a sort of comedy about the events that happen in the ten days after Stalin falls ill and dies – the power struggle in the Kremlin and how that affects the outside world. In a country where everyone has been in a state of terror for the last 20 years or so. The kind of state where if you tell the wrong joke or stop applauding a speech too early, things could happen to you and your family. So maybe it’s best to call it an unsettling comedy!
It’s based on a graphic novel, but did you have a burning desire to engage with that period of history before you read it?
Well, yes, separately I’d been looking at dictators and charismatic leaders for a while, spurred on by the rise of UKIP in the UK and the far right across Europe and wondering how certain individuals, by dint of their personalities, captivate a mass of people. This was all before Trump, by the way. But also that time fascinates me. It’s at the heart of what we consider the Kafka-esque terror state, and yet it’s never really been treated in cinema.
All the actors use their own accents. Was it fun to make Stalin a cockney?
Well, the actual Stalin was Georgian, so he had a completely different accent to everyone else anyway. I got the cast to stick to their own voices, because there naturally would have been that mix. Adrian McLoughlin, who plays Stalin, is a slightly posher cockney, so I asked him to just exaggerate his cockneyness a bit. When we showed it to a bunch of Russian journalists, they all said: “Thankfully you didn’t get them to try Russian accents – we hate that.”
Seeing great comic actors such as Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor and Michael Palin all together is a treat, like a comic supergroup.
Yes, there was something very surreal in watching them all carry a coffin around. They all really bonded, actually. They still meet every month or so for dinner. Like a sort of politburo. Those that can’t make it send video messages.
Were you daunted by dealing with a real period of history during which millions of people died?
Definitely, yes. From the outset I knew we had to be very respectful of what happened, and also that the comedy and the feeling of terror should move along simultaneously. I was venturing outside of my comfort zone, by doing something that wasn’t necessarily funny the whole way through. And taking the audience out of their comfort zone, too.
The film was made before the last American election, but it’s still timely.
Yes, it shouldn’t be seen as an allegory of Trump. It’s much more about how democracy and freedom don’t necessarily last for ever. My father, who fought in the Italian partisans [in WWII], didn’t take British citizenship, meaning he couldn’t vote. I asked him about it, he said: “The last election I remember, Mussolini got in.” So the film is a reminder that it doesn’t take much for world events to reach a critical threshold.
The Death of Stalin is in cinemas across the UAE from January 25.