Armando Iannucci on satire, Trump and The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci is back with the strange and brilliant The Death of Stalin. We talk to the director about navigating the line between comedy and tragedy, the film’s unplanned parallels to Donald Trump and the role of satire in today’s society

Feature by Benjamin Rabinovich | 03 Oct 2017

"When you make a film you sort of become a dictator. Everyone is asking what you have decided." Speaking to Armando Iannucci about his upcoming second feature film, The Death of Stalin, it’s hard to imagine anyone who resembles a dictator less. Diminutive and terribly polite, one struggles to picture him raising his voice, let alone inspiring terror on a film set. Then again, this is the mind that spawned the acid-spitting Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It.

Iannucci’s latest film is based on Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel. The adaptation revolves around the chaos caused by Stalin’s death in 1953 and explores how members of the politburo, including Nikita Khrushchev and head of Stalin’s secret police Lavrentiy Beria (played respectively in the film by Steve Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale), scrambled to get out of the political vacuum alive. It’s a strange, brilliant, hysterical feature that’s simultaneously vintage Iannucci and unlike anything he’s done before.

This duality stems from the fact that the line between comedy and tragedy is much more delicate here than it’s been in his previous work. Iannucci was very conscious of The Death of Stalin's historicity and significance. “We have to be very respectful of what actually happened,” says Iannucci. “We can't cover it up or hide it or be funny about it in terms of shootings and death. There's always comedy and there's always a sense of terror or unease. But they're both there and neither of them capsizes the other.”

The comedy and tragedy are in such a constant conflict that they can sometimes occupy the same space in the film, making for a wonderfully unnerving experience. Watching Beria instruct his men on the specific ways dissidents should be executed is simultaneously hilarious, due to Russell Beale’s insouciant delivery, and terrifying because of the awareness that those orders, and thus dissidents, really were executed. “The comedy is what people are really getting up to inside the rooms, but we can see the consequences… a very real sense of how this actually affected people's lives outside.”

What adds to the uncanniness of the film is the fact these real-life figures inside the rooms feel like quintessential Iannucci characters. Buscemi’s Khruschev is an inconspicuous plotter; Beria is a Tucker-esque shark who keeps the autocrat regime running smoothly; Jeffrey Tambor’s Georgy Malenkov is a useless panjandrum similar to Veep’s Jonah – desperately craving power but crumbling the minute he has any.

Iannucci has always been drawn to characters with a strong sense of amorality. He gives a literary example: “Why I think John le Carré is so good is that he doesn't have supervillains or superheroes, he just has people in different systems trying to navigate their way through.”

Iannucci’s works are filled with characters in such systems, unfamiliar with concepts of good or evil, acting only on the instinct of survivalism. The redeeming quality of morally bankrupt characters – such as Ollie Reeder from The Thick of It or Veep’s Dan Egan – is that they have no redeeming qualities: you revel in seeing their darkest demons manifest because you didn’t believe they had better angels in the first place.

Even then, Iannucci points out, although Beria committed truly terrible acts, only some of which made it into the film (“he did far worse”), he was apparently loved by his employees. “He always remembered their wedding anniversaries and birthdays. You know, that's strange."

While, in many ways, making a film in which a character casually schedules mass murder feels like a departure for Iannucci, it can also be argued to be the only logical step forward. After all, from the irrelevant DoSAC and PM rat races in The Thick of It, through UK-US relations in In The Loop, all the way to the US presidency in Veep, his recent work can be seen as charting a meteoric rise to power that could only ever really end with autocracy.

“That wasn’t planned!” Iannucci laughs. “When I was finishing Veep I was thinking I wanted to do something about dictators or autocrats, or populist figures like Le Pen or UKIP here. How do people just by their personality manage to captivate an entire country?” He was already considering these ideas when Yann Zenou and Laurent Zeitoun, the film’s producers approached him about the graphic novel, which hit those very beats.

Unpredictable demagogues captivating the hearts and minds of countries – this sounds familiar. It is easy to interpret The Death of Stalin – with its presentation of Janus-faced politicians operating in total fear of its petulant leader – as a blistering critique of Donald Trump and the chaos that he creates. However, Iannucci points out that he started working on the script three years ago, before the inexorable rise of Trump. “I think Brexit happened in the middle of the shoot, but certainly not Donald Trump. So it's only when we came out on the other side that we have these strange goings on in America that strangely parallel [the film].”

Iannucci points out that even though The Death of Stalin wasn’t influenced by Trump per se, the undeniable parallels stress the film’s core, timeless idea. “The underlying idea behind it, if you want to look for a serious message, is that freedom and democracy are not absolutes and they are not permanent,” he says. “They have to be continually managed and continually looked after.”

Iannucci observes how it’s comedians who are the ones stepping up to these responsibilities. They aren’t treating Trump as a joke, he says. “If you make Trump a comic figure, then you’ve reduced him to [something] safe. I find the comedians who are really hitting home about Trump are the ones who've become journalists in a way.” Comedians uncovering facts, he says, gives people a chance to engage with “what's really going on rather than reduce him to this comic clown."

This seems a good opportunity to bring up Sean Spicer and the effectiveness of satire in today’s society. What does Iannucci think of Spicer’s Emmys appearance on a Segway – the very object that Melissa McCarthy used to ridicule him with on SNL? Does it enforce the idea that the role of satire is changing? That now it's being appropriated by its targets, even being used as a rehabilitation tool? “That's what happens to politicians when they leave politics though,” he says. “They suddenly become much reduced versions of themselves.”

One can sense Iannucci’s frustration, however: “If you've made certain decisions and said certain things, you have to still be held to account for them.” This draws back to his reminder that democracy must be protected constantly. “It's not like a big evil man came along. It's a gradual thing and it's a series of small incremental compromises.”

After all, he says incredulously, “This is someone who was paid to lie on the behalf of a white supremacist, so why is he here? Because they aren't in political office, it doesn't mean to say they've been let off the hook. We shouldn't be making them popular entertainers.”

This assertion is a reminder of why Iannucci’s satire is so powerful. It never reduces people to harmless caricatures, focusing instead on what makes them human and therefore dangerous. “Ultimately that lends itself to comedy a little bit more because comedy is about fragility and vulnerability, faults and failings,” he says.

Iannucci mentions an observation about a Stalin anecdote that serves well as a lesson of what happens when we abandon our democratic guard and dull comedy’s core essence. “Stalin made a speech and everyone stood up and applauded and the first person to stop applauding was then shot. Which you sort of think, ‘well logically that means they're still applauding.’”

The Death of Stalin is released 20 Oct by Entertainment One
Armando Iannucci comes to Glasgow Film Theatre on 11 Oct, 7pm to present a preview of The Death of Stalin and hold a Q&A following the screening