Last Thursday, writer and director Armando Iannucci came to Washington, D.C., for screenings of his latest film, The Death of Stalin. He joked with audiences at three post-screening Q&As at the Landmark E Street Cinema as he was joined by Michael Bishop, Executive Director of the International Churchill Society and Director of the National Churchill Library and Center. “I wanted to get away from American politics as much as possible,” Iannucci remarked about working on the film after finishing with the hit series Veep. “So why not make something about a delusional narcissist?”
Death of Stalin focuses on the hours preceding and following the collapse and demise of Joseph Stalin in 1953. His top ministers fumble his medical care and struggle to keep the Soviet government running. Their visions for the future of Russia primarily put Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) against Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale). Rounding out the cast are actors Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Michael Palin as Molotov, Paul Whitehouse as Mikoyan, and Jason Isaacs as Zhukov.
Iannucci was interested in making a film about a fictional dictator, but he wasn’t sure what direction he’d take until he received a copy of The Death of Stalin, a French graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. “I thought why come up with a fiction because here we are. Here are the themes I want to talk about,” he said. “It’s horrifying. It’s absurd. It’s comic in a strange kind of nervous way. The more I read it, I thought this is the film I want to make.”
Depicting the Stalin regime poses a challenge in cinema because of the atrocities committed in this era by the government. However, the tightrope of drama and comedy is one that Iannucci has proven adept in handling. Both comedy and horror fit in the film because he derives those tones straight from the historical events. “I’ve been very careful as we made the film. The first thing I said to the crew was we have to be very respectful to what happened to the people. There’s no comedy there,” he emphasized.
Iannucci enjoyed carrying out the research, finding tidbits that he couldn’t fit in his film. He was particularly amused by Stalin’s evening routine of getting his ministers drunk and watching westerns in the evenings. They relied on translators to come and translate the films live from English to Russian. “These translators were petrified. One of them couldn’t speak English but didn’t want to say. He learned the dialogue in advance, memorized it, and hoped that he was saying the right lines,” Iannucci shared.
Unlike in Veep, where the president is never seen onscreen, Stalin appears right away to the viewer. It was intentional to focus on Stalin, by this time in his seventies. The small old man is juxtaposed with propaganda materials of him as a strong leader, a legacy that the ministers immediately grapple with. “When he dies, they’re still struggling with the image. That’s who they’re having to deal with. What would Stalin do?” Iannucci explained.
His film was pulled at the last minute in Russia by the Minister of Culture. Whether or not people in Russia actually get to see the film is an interesting point to consider in this digital age. “Russia is very good at being able to go online and [can] hack into any website that has that film. How are they going to ban this film?” asked Iannucci. “All they’ve done is just increased its profile.”
After The Death of Stalin, Iannucci fans can look forward to his David Copperfield film with Dev Patel as the lead. When asked about Peter Capaldi (The Thick of It, Doctor Who), Iannucci mysteriously confirmed, “I am working with him again. It won’t be Malcolm Tucker.”