Satirical movie Death of Stalin has an important message for politics today

The British director Armando Iannucci, known to audiences as the creator of the HBO comedy series Veep, has now turned his attention to Russian politics: The Death of Stalin is a satirical drama set in the Soviet Union in 1953. After the brutal dictator collapses from a stroke, the clownish Nikita Khrushchev competes for power with the vicious secret-police boss Lavrentiy Beria.

This is an unusual project: Whose idea was it to turn a French graphic novel about a Russian dictator into an English-language film?

Round about 2014, I was making the fourth season of Veep and I knew it was going to be my last: I was thinking about the next thing, about doing something about a fictional dictator, contemporary. Because something strange was happening in democracies, people were coming into power and then changing constitutions so they could stay in power. Quite by chance I got sent by the French producers, Quad, this graphic novel, The Death of Stalin. It was funny but horrifying, absurd and terrifying, all the things I was thinking about, yet it was all true. Why bother with a fictional dictator when this is the real thing? I immediately got on the phone and said, “Let’s do it.”

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How did the script get worked up?

I followed as much as possible the structure [of the novel], but in a comic book the dialogue isn’t as plentiful. I thought, “I want a great actor to play each character so they have to have really good lines to say.” It’s as simple as that, really, and then folding in some of the other themes I wanted, the power play, the struggle between Khrushchev and Beria, and the other form of madness, in Stalin’s children.

It’s a slow process. We spent about a year and a half fleshing it out, folding in as much accurate detail as possible, going to Moscow, visiting Stalin’s dacha, visiting his bunker, the Kremlin, talking to people who grew up in that era, what was it like going through the night not knowing whether you were going to make it to the morning.

When it came to casting, did you have particular actors in mind?

I knew I wanted Simon Russell Beale as Beria. Simon is a very well-known stage actor in the U.K. but he hasn’t done anything else. I have seen him do Othello, and King Lear. He’s powerful, yet funny; he is charismatic. I wanted someone playing Beria who people wouldn’t recognize: We don’t have an image of Beria. So I liked the idea of Simon being a relative unknown, despite his age and experience.

And for Khrushchev I wanted someone big and loud and energetic, someone who could play the clown yet could suddenly become the next dictator, and be frightening. So I thought of Steve [Buscemi]. He’s got that ability to be funny and chilling at the same time.

I’ve often observed that satire is hard to sustain because the audience doesn’t relate to farcical characters as closely as ones in in drama. How you do hold their interest?

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I don’t really see it as satire; it’s just a story. Once you actually get into the rehearsal and the filming, you concentrate on trying to make these people as three-dimensional and believable as possible. I didn’t want everyone to say: “Okay, Beria is the baddie; Khrushchev is the goodie.” I wanted it to get complicated. The more you get to know the people, the more your response to them starts to change.

And I keep people back to give fresh bursts of energy: [Field Marshall] Zhukov only comes in halfway but he comes in all guns blazing; similarly, we introduce Stalin’s children a bit further on. I like to get some plates spinning, and then add a few more, and add a few more.

That’s a great metaphor for entertainment. How did you resolve the moral issue underlying the film? Stalin killed millions and here we are laughing uproariously.

I said when we started filming we have to be very respectful to what happened to the people; that is not played for laughs; that is played for real. The laughter is the people inside the Kremlin, their crazy behaviour. I knew I was going to have to balance this farce and high tragedy and one would feed off the other. It was about being really careful not to put the laughs on what was happening, but to laugh at the perpetrators. And this is borne out by the reaction of audiences in Russia who stood and applauded at the end.

It has been well received in Russia?

Well received until they banned it. It was given a licence, it was dubbed; we did the press screenings and then, two days beforehand, somebody in ministry of culture removed the licence. I think they got nervous because there is a presidential election coming up. One cinema kept showing it and people stood and applauded. The older generation, they have many memories of what it was like; that generation said two things: it was funny and it was true.

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How strong did you want contemporary resonances to be?

I thought the contemporary resonance would come if we got the history right, rather than trying to turn it into an abstract thing because then you lose the nuance of the characters. They all speak in [different] English accents rather than Russian accents because I wanted it to feel here and now rather than in some land far, far away. (In the Soviet Union at the time there were so many accents and dialects. Stalin spoke Georgian; Khrushchev was from Ukraine. It wasn’t like there was a single Russian accent.)

We shot it in the summer of 2016, the American election hadn’t happened. But there were these odd parallels. The whole stuff about alternative facts was like Beria; he says, “We are in a new reality.” He says “False narrative,” which is like fake news.

I find the contemporary resonances chilling in a way. This could be happening now if we don’t protect our freedom of speech; if we don’t allow opposition to thrive. I showed it at Sundance and afterwards someone came up to me from the audience. She was crying and she said: “This is my country.” She was from Zimbabwe. [Robert] Mugabe had just left the presidency after 30 years.

This interview has been condensed and edited

The Death of Stalin opens March 16

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