Armando Iannucci on The Death of Stalin for Sight & Sound

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Armando Iannucci’s new film The Death of Stalin is out today in the UK. I talked to him for Sight & Sound about how the feature raises the stakes of Iannucci’s cycle of fly-on-the-wall satires – which also includes The Thick of It, In the Loop and Veep – as well as the challenges of engaging with a new politics that is less about winning an agreed game than defining reality.

Room at the top

‘The Death of Stalin’, a viciously funny portrait of the jockeying for power that follows the demise of the Soviet dictator, bears all the hallmarks of the satirical genius of its director Armando Iannucci, showcasing a gallery of slightly rubbish people insulting each other in a hurry. By Ben Walters

Early on in Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, we join the leader and his coterie at his dacha late one night in 1953. The jokes and the vodka are flowing. “Everybody drinks!” says the old man and no one suggests otherwise. Fun times – if you overlook the paranoid hypervigilance necessary to survive this high-stakes camaraderie. One reveller will dictate scrupulous notes on his return home about which gags got a laugh and which turned the air cold. Another is scheduled for assassination within hours. And Stalin himself, fount of all this fear, is about to succumb to the fatal stroke that will throw the Soviet Union into disarray and prompt the absurd yet brutal manoeuvring that constitutes the film’s story. The fate of the world could turn on a conversational slip, an impulsive lurch or an old grudge rekindled.

“Not that I admire Margaret Thatcher,” Iannucci says when we meet to discuss the film, “but I do admire one thing she said, which was that deferred decisions are usually better decisions.”

Deferred decisions, like predictable events and the capacity to undertake bodily functions in peaceful repose, are rare luxuries in the political-procedural satirical milieu that Iannucci has depicted over the past decade or so. The Death of Stalin is the culmination of this cycle, a hilarious, pacy, grotesque and sobering snapshot of the struggle for power in a totalising system rendered sclerotic by its own machinery of terror and control. Apparatchiks sleep in many layers, in anticipation of being dragged from their beds to the street; pallbearers plot statecraft while bearing bodies; the dead might even, under the right circumstances, be brought back just to keep you on your toes.

At the centre is Stalin, given a Cockney bullyboy charm by Adrian McLoughlin that somehow lingers even after the character’s death. His satellites include bovine deputy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), monstrously composed secret police chief Beria (Simon Russell Beale), eager loyalist Molotov (Michael Palin) and the relatively reasonable Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi). Stalin’s children Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend) are additional wild cards.

It’s more highly strung than Iannucci’s earlier work, yet recognisably of a piece with the television series The Thick of It (BBC, 2005-12), set in a middling UK government ministry, and Veep (HBO, 2012-), about a US vice-president and her staff, as well as Iannucci’s debut feature In the Loop (2009), set in the run-up to a questionable war in the Middle East. Each project was developed in collaboration with its cast and writers, who included Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Ian Martin and Tony Roche, and, every time, more or less mediocre politicians are haplessly harried by party wonks and enforcers, media snipers and, occasionally, actual voters. All are ensemble pieces marked by merciless backbiting, explosively imaginative swearing and deliciously distinctive standout characters (notably The Thick of It ’s diabolical fixer Malcolm Tucker, played by Peter Capaldi, and Veep’s narcissistic Selina Meyer, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus).

The Death of Stalin takes things up a notch in several respects. “I’ve deliberately forced myself out of my comfort zone by taking on a story that involves historic figures,” Iannucci says. “It has stuff that isn’t necessarily funny in it, dealing with moments that are about the truth.” There are no voters here but many victims, with lives on the line within the Kremlin and across the USSR. “There’s an undercurrent of nervousness which takes you in and out of the comedy and in and out of the drama because they’re all connected by this level of hysteria that’s building up.”

The screenplay, by Iannucci, Martin, David Schneider and Peter Fellows, is adapted from Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel, whose narrative arc, deadpan humour and eye for historical detail the film retains. Feature-friendly changes are made, though, with months streamlined to feel like days and characters given more individual depth: Khrushchev gains a home life and an overt openness to reform, for instance, while the pompously floundering Malenkov is all about image management. There are mordantly funny new physical set pieces at Stalin’s dacha, in front of his coffin and elsewhere, as well as extra doses of earthy slapstick involving bodily fluids and awkward corpses.

For Iannucci, one imperative was to nourish his ensemble, who offer a diverse range of styles that reflect the range of backgrounds of the real-life figures. “You’ve got to write more dialogue because if you read everything out from the graphic novel it would be over in 30 minutes,” he says. “But also you’ve got this amazing group of performers so they’ve got to have something to get their teeth into. Once you’ve got them all together, you’ve got to have scenes in which the magic between them as an ensemble starts sparking.” That magic plays out across a spectrum of registers, from bickering about piss on the carpet to pleading not to die.

Indeed, The Death of Stalin makes a life-and-death matter of the kind of jockeying for power that has been the bread and butter of Iannucci’s satirical cycle from the start. Both The Thick of It and Veep devoted considerable time to leadership struggles and succession crises, observing ambitious aspirants, in the words of one onlooker, “bobbing around like Emperor penguins trying to swap an egg”.

In 2005, The Thick of It was consciously conceived as a shoestring production apt to the limited budgets of fledgling digital channel BBC4. Its restricted mise en scène – small clutches of people in inexpensive suits flapping around banal, flatly lit offices, captured over shoulders and round corners in peeping, faintly panicked hand-held shots – perfectly suited its on-the-fly world of policy hackwork, image management and career manoeuvring. As Iannucci’s satirical cycle has evolved, the narrative, political and moral stakes have been steadily ratcheted up, matched by growing budgets and production values.

In the Loop went transatlantic, evocatively sketching the political landscapes of Washington and New York as well as Westminster while actual armed conflict heaved into view – even if the only visible lived experiences from outside the political bubble related to banal local constituency shenanigans. Then Veep whisked us, motorcade blaring, into the West Wing and the most powerful, consequential office in the world – even if, at first, it made us skulk outside the door, geopolitics afoot at one tantalising remove, always ready for the call that seemed like it would never come.

Now The Death of Stalin drops us into the belly of the Soviet beast to join a group of bloody-handed veteran statesmen at a juncture of world-historical import. The lives of millions – perhaps billions – are in the balance, yet the basic register of slightly rubbish people insulting each other in a hurry is recognisable from the first episode of The Thick of It. “The interpersonal dynamic is there,” Iannucci agrees, “but also it’s a case of trying to survive because the alternative is to be shot, rather than being demoted or getting Fisheries. And not just shot, but your family shot too.”

The sense of fly-on-the-wall observation remains consistent too, even if the world depicted in The Death of Stalin is less contemporary and familiar. The production design and location work evoke a sense of lived-in period detail derived from extensive research but worn lightly. “We’re not revelling in what we’ve built,” Iannucci says, “but it’s there to remind you that this really happened.” At the same time, the observational mode is balanced by more conspicuously expressive turns, such as stately tracking shots of imposing architecture and massed ranks of troops or a civilian massacre rendered with quiet pathos. “It would have been easier to halve the budget and just shoot it in some rooms but I wanted to get that sense that this has impact,” Iannucci says. “The things they’re deciding here do affect millions of lives out there and I wanted to show what ‘out there’ was.”

There are also flourishes – such as a cod-heroic slow-motion cape-shucking introduction to Jason Isaacs’s bombastic Field Marshal Zhukov – that would have jarred against the formal deadpan of The Thick of It, In the Loop or Veep but which echo the promiscuous, eclectic tone of the director’s offbeat TV comedies The Armando Iannucci Shows (2001) and Time Trumpet (2006). “They were full of fantastical films with different styles,” Iannucci says. “I did lots of storyboards, working with special effects people, loads of locations, and I really enjoyed that. I felt confident about going back to that other method and it not being about shaky camera but actually, ‘We’ll go to this, then we’ll stay wide, then the music will take us through to that…’ Not in order to feel artsy, but because this is how I want this story to develop.”

Iannucci’s interest in backstairs politicking succeeded earlier shows skewering news media (The Day Today, 1994) and unleashing Alan Partridge on the world (Knowing Me, Knowing You, 1994; I’m Alan Partridge, 1997-2002). Now that interest seems to have run its course, not least because the times have changed. Real-world political discourse has cannibalised Iannucci’s material. The Thick of It’s joke insults, such as ‘omnishambles’, have been co-opted for use in the House of Commons, and its joke policies, such as monitoring spare rooms and rationing plastic bags, have become law. These days, the utterances of the real president of the United States sit better when overlaid with the theme from Veep by YouTube remixers than when broadcast straight on the evening news. Iannucci calls Trump a “self-basting satirist”, doing the jester’s work for him, modelling himself on “the Hollywood idea of a dystopian presidency”. How do you mock that?

The centre-ground triangulation of the New Labour era – the notion of jockeying for power within a stable, consensus-driven polity – seems dated, even quaint, in a period when the fundamental premises of political discourse are newly and strangely up for grabs. The Death of Stalin has been in the works since before voters approved Brexit or Trump but it feels timely because its combatants are wrangling not only over who wins but over who gets to define the rules of the game. There are lines in the film that seem painfully current. “We’re in a new reality.” “You’re bending and cracking the truth like a human body.” “This is how people get killed: when their stories don’t fit.”

We’ve gone beyond shabby compromise and personal venality. Now the abyss yawns. This, Iannucci suggests, is the spirit that haunts his new film: “It’s about what happens when the system itself has started to rot and nobody knows morally where the centre is any more.”

The Death of Stalin’s end credits play out to a montage of photographed faces being scratched out and doctored away – a reminder that Russia’s current pre-eminence in the fields of fake news and alternative facts is not without precedent. It seems apt, if depressing, that the film itself has now become embroiled in such discourse. In the days before we speak, voices within Russia (including a Communist Party spokesman and a Kremlin cultural adviser) have castigated the feature as a “planned provocation” and “psychological warfare”, and international press have speculated about a potential ban. To Iannucci, this all says less about the fate of his film than about the state of journalism. “We’ve got a distributor in Russia and they’re sorting it out,” he says. “Nothing has happened. A person in Russia said, ‘I don’t like this film.’ A man has said a thing. But the media has to fill its space with stuff.”

Iannucci has several projects in development, none set in the world of politics. He is working with Steve Coogan and writers Neil and Rob Gibbons on Alan Partridge’s triumphant return to the BBC (“He’s survived! God bless him”). There’s a comedy pilot in the works for HBO about “space tourism, set in about 40 years’ time”. And, for BBC Films, he’s making a feature adaptation of David Copperfield, a project he sees as timely. “It’s to do with austerity and materialism and mental illness,” he says. “I’m still going to do it set in Victorian times but I’m not going to do it as the chocolate-box Dickens – cobbled streets and all that.” The novel’s opening also presents opportunities for formal experimentation based around some of the least cynical or political of concerns. “It’s very impressionistic,” Iannucci says. “It’s a little boy seeing colours and shapes and hearing words.”

The Death of Stalin is released in the UK on October 20 2017. This feature appears in the November 2017 issue of Sight & Sound and is reproduced here with permission.