The film draws on the real history of the Soviet leader’s demise from a stroke at the end of long bloody two decades of killings and purges – the so-called Great Terror – and spins comedy gold from the infighting and sheer panic that befell his lieutenants as the battle for succession took place.
The stricken leader was left for hours in his room by staff who were too frightened to disturb him. Or as Iannucci puts it: “He was killed by his own terror.”
Michael Palin plays Stalin loyalist Molotov, whose devotion never wavered to Stalin even when his wife was imprisoned and tortured. In a very strong ensemble, Paul Whitehouse puts in an excellent turn as Foreign Minister Anastas Mikoyan and Steve Buscemi is sublime as Nikita Kruschev, Stalin’s eventual successor. I could go on.
But some voices in modern Russia, including the country’s Communist Party, have objected to the film and called for it to be banned. Is Armando Iannucci worried? Does he fear a cyber-attack – or worse?
Well if his laugh is anything to go by, probably not.
“They say they don’t do that – it’s the North Koreans that do that,” he tells RadioTimes.com with a chuckle.
“I have done a series of interviews with the Russian press and they loved the film and they are pleased we haven’t done fake Russian accents because they can’t stand that. We’ve got a Russian distributor and the idea is that we’re releasing it sometime next year.
“People have said its authentic. People who have lived through those events or people whose parents lived though those events have told us it’s funny because it’s true. People cried in the gulags, people cried when they heard the news [of Stalin’s death], people in torture chambers, people in prison cried ‘long lives Stalin’ as they were about to be shot. It’s just bizarre.
“Of course there will be people who express an opinion about it. But you’ve got to be able to make stuff and not assume everyone will love it. If you expect 100% approval rating you’re in North Korea.”
It’s brilliantly funny, but some of the scenes are quite difficult to watch. There’s a scene in which Lavrentiy Beria, the head of the secret police and essentially Stalin’s stunningly cruel and bloodthirsty enforcer played by Simon Russell Beale, runs through the night’s killings almost as if he’s trotting out a shopping list.
“Kills her first but make sure he sees it. .. Kill him in his church and dump him in the pulpit,” he orders his men with a sigh.
Says Iannucci: “Uncomfortable is a word I like. I want to take people out of their comfort zone. In something like The Thick of It, people get things wrong and it’s funny, but nothing disastrous happens. Here people’s lives depend on it.
“It’s a kind of crazy laughter. There used to be jokes about Stalin and Beria and shootings and if you were caught with one of these joke books in your possession you would be shot. But people carried them because it was like ‘you haven’t got us if we can joke about it’.
“When we join the action, this has been going on for 20 years so you can’t be in a state of heightened terror all that time. So there is an element of gallows humour creeping in.”
Being Iannucci, there are obviously parallels to politics closer to home. It was written before the arrival of US President Donald Trump, but he says he was concerned about the erosion of democracy and the rise of the strong man – (at the time) people like Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan.
“But there’s also an element of [Stalin] in Trump – you’re fake news, you’re unpatriotic,” says Iannucci noting Stalin’s description of political opponents and dissenters of any kind as Enemies of the People.
Iannucci is very disturbed by the state of modern politics and has said he doesn’t think now is the time for jokes. “I’m not as optimistic as I used to be,” he says deadpan. “We think of democracy as being perfect but it needs tending to all the time.”
But he does believe that today’s modern comics and satirists have found a way of challenging authority by “becoming journalists.”
“This has allowed them to land blows that way rather than letting Trump be a cuddly clown,” he says citing the work of comics such as John Oliver and the Daily Show team.
As for himself, Iannucci is busy writing the new Alan Partridge series which will begin filming next year and marks Norwich’s finest DJs return to the BBC.
He is also working on Avenue 5, a new HBO comedy set in space. But he rules out a return of his British political satire The Thick of It (which spawned HBO’s long runner Veep starring Julia Lous-Dreyfus). At least for now. The reality of all the upheavals in contemporary politics will never be surpassed by anything made up, he says, and he seems happier (at least for the moment) in space.
“A ficitonalised version of what is happening now would never be as resonant as what is happening now. I would have cut a scene in The Thick of it that had letters falling behind the head of a politician as they are saying a speech. I think that would have been too ridiculous – though of course for Theresa May it happened.”
The Death of Stalin has opened nationwide in cinemas
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