The Death of Stalin opens in Radio Moscow in 1953, where an orchestra is wrapping up the third movement of a Mozart piano concerto. The phone rings. It’s Joseph Stalin, personally requesting a copy of the performance. Panic grips the studio. They have no recording – which means they have to re-stage the whole event exactly as it happened. It gets worse: The studio audience is filing out, the conductor has knocked himself unconscious and one of the musicians, Maria Yudina, so detests the dictator that she’s refusing to play for him. In the end, the orchestra plays before a crowd of confused street peasants, under the direction of a replacement conductor still in his pajamas and a pissed-off pianist who winds up making a deadly political statement.
Some 20 years into The Great Terror, the Russian people have been living in a state of constant low-level paranoia and fear. At the same time, no one has imagined what life will be like after Stalin is gone – not least the hornet’s nest of sycophants and functionaries that comprise his inner circle. And when the Soviet leader collapses from a brain hemorrhage, they’re so paralyzed with uncertainty that he’s left on the floor for a while, soaking in a pool of his own urine.
And all of this really happened. Or most of it, anyway.
For Armando Iannucci, the comedy here is that any of these political toadies could be killed on a whim – and that’s the horror of it, too. As the creator of the scabrous Britcom The Thick of It and HBO’s Veep, and the director of In the Loop, he knows from sycophants, functionaries, and the ugly, absurd business of politics. What’s funny about his adaptation of the French graphic novel The Death of Stalin is that the backstabbing Party jackals are no different from those in the writer-director’s other work: They don’t speak in Russian accents. They’re constantly plotting against each other. And they don’t remotely look like the historical figures they’re representing. (Just seeing Steve Buscemi yukking it up as Nikita Khrushchev is one of the film’s biggest early laughs.)
Inspired by the rise of authoritarian strongmen around the globe, Iannucci didn’t want The Death of Stalin to seem like a hidebound history lesson, but a script that’s playing out in contemporary times. Speaking from Los Angeles two days before the film opens in U.S. arthouses, Iannucci talked to Rolling Stone about mixing comedy and terror, living in another age of disinformation and the incomprehensibility of America’s current political situation.
Let’s start with Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev.
What was the philosophy behind that choice – and other casting choices? What signals were you sending to the audience?
A number of things. You know, it’s a huge ensemble, and it’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle. I like to cast one person at a time rather than go, “Okay, here’s my ideal 12. Let’s speak to all 12 of them right now.” I started off wanting Simon Russell Beale to play [Lavrentiy] Beria. He’s a great stage actor in the UK, not that well known in film and television. But then we don’t really have an idea of who Beria is, so I like the idea of this sort of unknown presence [playing him].
Whereas Khrushchev is loud, voluble and garrulous. He has to do that transformation from a sort of funny-man clown at the beginning in pajamas to the can-be-frightening dictator at the end; he needs to be the contrast to Beria. So that’s why I thought of Steve, because he has this garrulous, comic ability, but we also know he can be frightening and he can do menacing. I just thought that would make a great sort of contrast.
Then you think, “Okay, who’s the ideal person to be caught up in the middle of all this?” You know, the number two who becomes number one but clearly should never be the number one. I thought of Jeffrey Tambor [who plays Georgy Malenkov] from his time on The Larry Sanders Show, the ideal sidekick but someone who should never host the thing. I also wanted to get this range of acting traditions so that they weren’t all movie actors. There’s Michael Palin, who’s known for Monty Python; Jeffrey’s more television; Steve is film; Andrea Riseborough is a character actress, a real chameleon; and Simon is a stage performer. I liked that. I didn’t want them to be speaking with one voice. I wanted the idea of there being lots of different ways of performing.
The other key point is that Steve Buscemi isn’t doing what Gary Oldman was doing as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, for example.
And that goes across the board. You’re maybe suggesting the spirit of certain political players here, but …
Yes, exactly. What I didn’t want to do was the literal recreation of these people, because for me it was more about the dynamic they bring when they’re responding to each other rather than trying to get an accurate portrayal of who this person is. From an early stage, we made a decision was to go with English accents and not Russian accents. I wanted people to feel this is happening now, right now [and] in front you, rather than a long time ago and far, far away. It has to feel alive. Sometimes I feel if you’re very, very literal in that respect, it suddenly becomes like some museum piece rather than a living thing.
“For me, it’s a tremendous compliment when Russians who have seen the film say to me, ‘Where in Moscow did you film this?’ And I say, ‘In London.’
Was there something resonant to you about this story and our current political moment?
Yes. I was thinking of democracy now and how it’s going through this strange phase: the strong personality becoming elected and then amassing power. So that even though they’ve been democratically elected, they start using democracy to just reinforce their own position, and it becomes more and more difficult for them to be removed. So you’ve got the likes of Putin, Berlusconi … Erdoğan in Turkey. In Eastern Europe, you have constitutions being changed so that they can stay in office for longer. Things like that.
I was [also] looking at mass movements across Europe: nationalism, populism, the unpredictability now in elections, people really being disenchanted with politicians, new parties and an extremism emerging. We shot the film in the summer of 2016, so it was before Donald Trump was elected and the whole Russia-America thing became news – but that in itself is also part of that trend that I’d been noticing anyway. So the film is very much made to chime with that current feeling. That’s part of the reason I wanted to make the film, to say, “Look, you know, just because you’re in a democracy, don’t think it’s perfect or permanent … because it can go away if you don’t do anything about it.”
There are some incredibly funny details in the film that emerge from history, like the re-recording of the radio concerto, or the irony of Stalin having persecuted so many doctors that no good ones remain to take care of him. As a satirist, did you find yourself not having to put that much spin on the ball?
Absolutely! Absolutely! In the concert, in real life, they got through three conductors, because the first conductor fainted and knocked himself out. They got someone in in the middle of night in his pajamas, the second conductor, but this guy was drunk. So they actually had to go out and get a third conductor. I thought, “If I put three conductors in at the beginning, no one will believe it. So I cut it down to two.” [Laughs.]
You seem to enjoy the idea of emergency situations that involve Russians turning up in their pajamas.
It was farcical, and yet it was true, and of course it is because mad things happen under terror and under paranoia. People just go crazy and therefore craziness kind of breaks out everywhere.
The movie has been called “the most accurate depiction of life under Soviet terror ever committed to film” – and it’s been nitpicked over regarding over the historical circumstances. What’s your commitment to depicting history accurately and where do you feel free to go off on your own.
I mean, we don’t put a title at the beginning saying this is all true. It’s our interpretation. We’ve amassed the facts and we’ve been inspired by the facts. What I’m trying to convey is an accuracy of atmosphere – what it must have felt like to grow up under Stalin, to be terrified on a daily basis, to not know whether you’re going to get through the night. We were talking to people who lived through that, and reading their accounts, and asking them questions, and going to the various locations and trying to recreate them as much as possible. For me, it’s a tremendous compliment when Russians who have seen the film say to me, “Where in Moscow did you film this?” And I say, “In London.”
I’m not saying it’s a documentary. It is a fiction, but it’s a fiction inspired by the truth of what it must have felt like at the time. My aim is for the audience feel the sort of low-level anxiety that people must have [experienced] when they just went about their daily lives at the time.
What’s fascinating is how you’re able to kind of find the humor in that without minimizing the horrific reality of it.
I think the humor comes from the fact that it’s true. It’s a specific type of humor – a kind of a crazy, mad humor, isn’t it? If we just wrote jokes, I think they would feel out of place. So what we did was we just rehearsed the situation, wrote it and then tried to establish what was bizarre about it. Also, the humor is about people’s behavior, that just paranoia of saying the wrong thing and so on.
We found out there were joke books that circulated at the time, about Stalin, about Beria, about torture and the gulags. And people [who] circulated these joke books could be killed if they were found in possession of one, yet they still felt the need to tell jokes about it. “Look, if I can make fun of you, you don’t have power over me. You still haven’t got me. You haven’t got my mind.”
The crafting of jokes is a part of the film, too. There’s a scene where Khrushchev come home and goes over all the jokes landed and which ones didn’t. These are the sort of conversations that have to happen when you’re guessing about whether or not you’re on a list.
And also it’s because we read that Stalin got them drunk and made them stay up late, because he just thought that would loosen them up and then he could really find out what they were really thinking. They must have then thought when they got home, “Oh my God, what did I say? I better write it down now because I won’t remember in the morning.” [Laughs]
One of the more resonant aspects of the film is how made-up facts and conspiracies can drive consequential decisions. Like the move against Beria, who was tried and executed under dubious evidence for treason and terrorism. Is that where the film connects most with, say, the Trump administration or our current age of disinformation?
Yeah. The disinformation thing. Within days of being president, Trump called CNN and NBC “enemies of the people” in a tweet. Not really realizing that “enemies of the people” is a Stalin phrase. That thing of just regarding your opponents as no longer opponents but as enemies, you know, traitors. Which we see happening with the U.K. and Brexit. If you say the wrong thing on Brexit, you’ve got your face in the front of the newspaper saying, “traitor” or “treachery,” and so on. That’s not democracy. Democracy is almost by definition a system where opposing views can exist simultaneously. But if you’re saying, no, you’re not allowed to oppose anymore, then you no longer have democracy. You have something else.
Do you tend to think about politics as this sort of global organism that’s constantly interacting …
What’s happened with politics now is it’s become a lot more nebulous. Nobody knows now where power lies. The nation state has kind of disappeared, because power is in information and communication. We know that Facebook and Google have more power than certain European countries. Politicians have less power than they used to have, in that they can’t manage and control events as much as they used to. And they’re scared! They don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to define themselves as politicians because they don’t know what it is, in office, they’re capable of achieving anymore. That’s the upheaval that’s happening at the moment. I think it’s too soon to even begin to work out what that means really.
How would you describe Stalin’s status in Russia?
Hitler is poison. Hitler is toxic. You wouldn’t get any portraits of Hitler in any hotels in Germany, but the hotel we were staying at in Moscow had a portrait of Stalin up. He’s gotten away with it, really. We’ve quietly drawn a veil over him and not really concerned ourselves too much about him.
The film has been banned in Russia. What was the rationale you were given for that?
It kept changing. They kept saying it was an act of subversion, and then they said it offended people who fought in the war, which I didn’t quite get. Then they said it was of no artistic merit whatsoever. That was the other one.
I know! I think someone in the Ministry of Culture just panicked because Putin was up for election in two or three weeks time, and I think they just want to get that out of the way first. I suspect we will end up in cinemas. It was actually shown in some theaters until they got told to stop. And the people stood and applauded at the end. They didn’t find it offensive. They said it was funny, but it was true.
One thing I said as we were starting to film is that we have to be absolutely respectful of what happened to the people at the time. So that’s not played for laughs. We show that for real. The comedy is indoors, in the Kremlin, in Stalin’s inner circle. But what they get up to, the consequences of their decisions you see played out for real outdoors. That was always the thinking.
Rewinding to In The Loop for a second, there’s really just one rhetorical miscue that sets that movie’s whole diplomatic catastrophe in motion. In the United States, we’re now getting a constant stream of miscues and things that shouldn’t be said. How do you process that? What’s changed? Can there be such a thing as a diplomatic incident like that anymore over one misplaced word?
I’m not sure you can process it now, because everything now is a story. You just say the wrong thing because you’re half asleep and someone records it and it becomes a story. It’s kind of a constant shriek. You know, Twitter storms … I’m always a bit wary of Twitter storms because they always sound like they’re really serious and then they’re not, really. They’re just 500 people who have decided to be annoyed about something.
“Democracy is a system where opposing views can exist simultaneously. But if you’re saying, no, you’re not allowed to oppose anymore, then you no longer have democracy. You have something else.”
But somehow we grant that the same status as, you know, a meeting at the United Nations in which a country is roundly rebuked. It’s a strange thing. The playing field is so level that it’s impossible to distinguish who is significant and who isn’t anymore. Because you can do a news story and put it up online, it doesn’t matter if it’s completely false. It just looks real because it’s in type and it’s on a webpage. That’s troubling, because it means we can no longer work out what is and isn’t valid anymore.
What does our political situation in the United States look like from overseas? Is it comprehensible?
No, it’s not comprehensible at all. [Laughs] Sorry to say. I think everyone feels sorry for you, America, because we know fundamentally you’re embarrassed by what’s going on. It’s that thing of nobody knows what to do. Someone is in charge who is kind of out of control really, and there’s nothing in the Constitution for what to do when an out-of-control person is in charge.
Well, there’s impeachment. Or the 25th amendment.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. But, you know, everyone would rather just leave the White House than stay there and vote against him. People just get out. It’ll just be him there alone, eventually, in about three months time.
There’s a sense that when he dies, only Corey Lewandowski will come to his funeral. That’s it.
Kellyanne Conway will be there. She’ll be there. The two of them.