To be honest, it’s one person in the Communist Party,” says Armando Iannucci. “The Russian government hasn’t commented.” The Glaswegian creator of Alan Partridge, Malcolm Tucker and Veep’s Selina Meyer is referring to a widely circulated news story last month about a high-ranking adviser to the Russian culture ministry who believes Iannucci’s new film, The Death of Stalin, might be part of a western plot designed to destabilise Mother Russia. Based on a French graphic novel about the internal and external chaos that followed the eponymous event, Iannucci’s film is certainly provocative, condensing the political mayhem that ensued into a funny, frightening and furiously paced farce.
But as fun as it is to imagine the reported furore as a Russian version of The Thick of It – replete with frantic bureaucrats running around the corridors of the Kremlin fire-fighting whatever imagined damage they think a period satire might be able to inflict 60-plus years after the events in question – the truth is rather more mundane. “We’ve got a distributor [in Russia]; they’re talking about bringing it out next year,” says Iannucci. “I sort of feel it’s just one person, but the self-replicating power of the internet turns it into another story and another story and another story.”
Which isn’t to say the film is not rich in contemporary parallels. The links between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump and the chaos that has ensued in the US since Trump’s election last year make a film about corruption, disruption and dangerous ineptitude at the heart of a superpower feel incredibly timely. Film, though, is a slow-moving animal, not great at responding quickly to current events, so any resonance has more to do with the fact that Iannucci’s antenna were already up when he started thinking about doing another film three years ago. Back then he had a sense that something was in the air, that something smelled not quite right, that something was “rotting on the fringes of democracy” as he puts it. “I was thinking of doing something about absolutism and authority figures. I was reading about Mao and Lenin and I don’t know whether that was because of being aware of movements like Le Pen in France and Farage here, but it was harking back to stuff that was happening in the 1930s and I was just on the tip of looking at that and asking if there was something in the offing.”
His first thought was to do something on a modern day dictator, or perhaps set something in the future. Then the French production company that held the rights to Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel got in touch and asked him if he wanted to adapt the book. “I read it and thought, ‘Well, this is the story I want to tell. It’s laid out there in all its horrible and absurd detail.’ It was an instant ‘This is it. This is my next film.’”
The fact that it really happened was also a big reason for doing it. “In that period, the Nazis are the Darth Vaders of historical movie making. The great terror under Stalin isn’t something that’s addressed or looked at. Because Russia fought with Britain and America against the Nazis and won, there’s almost a feeling of ‘Let’s not dwell on that.’”
But dwell on it he has and the results are hilarious and horrifying in equal measure, the fearful idiocy of Stalin’s inner circle undercut by their murderous actions as people are routinely shot, burned, beaten, disappeared and, at one point, “reappeared” for sinister political purposes. The bodycount differentiates it from Iannucci’s razor-sharp TV work and his Oscar-nominated debut In the Loop. “I was going into this knowing I was deliberately out of my comfort zone and thinking I should take the audience out of their comfort zone. The one thing I knew was that we mustn’t pretend this wasn’t happening. We should be respectful of what did happen, rather than try and dilute it or hide it or just make jokes referring to it. Yes, you get the comedy of all these people running around inside the building, but the decisions they’re making have very real consequences for the people outside and across this vast empire.”
Walking that fine line was made easier by the crack team of actors Iannucci assembled, among them comedy heroes like Michael Palin (who plays Vyacheslav Molotov) and Transparent’s Jeffrey Tambor (cast here as Stalin’s insecure successor Georgy Malenkov, a role that riffs on his genius turn as Hank Kingsley in The Larry Sanders Show). “Out of all the Pythons I’ve always been drawn to Michael,” says Iannucci. “He’s the best actor, so to have him as Molotov, and to turn Molotov into a Michael Palin character was one of the most satisfying things about making it.
“And Jeffrey Tambor,” he continues: “The Larry Sanders Show was a huge influence on me. His character, Hank, was one of those characters who was close to power, but didn’t really have any power, which I suppose characterises things like Veep and Alan Partridge.”
Perhaps the biggest casting coup was Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria, the dark puppet master orchestrating the power transition with Malcolm Tucker-esque ruthlessness. Frequently ranked alongside the formerly camera shy Mark Rylance as Britain’s greatest actor, Beale rarely trades stage for screen, so even seasoned movie-goers don’t necessarily know his work. “I’m so glad that he’s got something that he carries on screen,” says Iannucci. “And for me, Beria is not someone that we know in the UK. He’s an unknown, so it was good to cast someone who is an unknown in cinema terms, because when we see Simon as Beria, he has a huge impact. He makes him unsettling without turning him into a baddy.”
Though the film conforms to the old Marxist dictum about history repeating itself, first as tragedy then as farce, I’m curious to know if Iannucci thinks that this idea might have been reversed in the age of Trump: farce first, tragedy later. “I was going to say it’s simultaneously farce and tragedy, but maybe you’re right. That’s why I’m very nervous of making fun of Trump. One’s automatic response is to make fun of Trump because instinctively he provokes that in any comic sensibility, but I’m reluctant to because I think he’s dangerous. He’s an unstable person who’s very, very powerful.”
*The Death of Stalin is out now