Soviet Russia in the 1950s isn’t the first topic that springs to mind when you think of comedy. The cast and director of The Death of Stalin tell us about treading the line between funny and tragic
Trying to make one of the darkest periods and characters in our history funny is no mean feat.
But writer-director Armando Iannucci manages to do just that, as he tackles the internal political landscape of 1950s Soviet Russia in his latest epic, The Death of Stalin.
“I’d been thinking for a while about doing something about dictators or authority figures, because there’d been an element of political populism in the air,” explains Iannucci, 53, who read up on graphic novels about Joseph Stalin’s stroke, including The Death Of Stalin and its follow-up, Volume 2 - The Funeral.
“We started writing this about two years ago, and we shot it last year, so this was pre-Trump and pre-Brexit,” he continues. “But there was Ukip and the sort of Farage cult, there was Le Pen in France, there was Turkey. So there was an element of democracy feeling a little bit wobbly, a bit frayed at the edges.”
Here, Iannucci and his cast tell us more about the film’s darkly comic form.
Recalling a visit to France to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme on a day off from shooting, Jason Isaacs, who plays Georgy Zhukov, claims David Cameron recognised the political relevance of the film.
“He (Cameron) had just resigned, and all the heads of Europe were there, and he said, ‘what are you doing now?’ And I told him and he went, ‘Jesus, it sounds like it’s set in Downing Street’,” the Harry Potter star reveals. “And it does, but it sounds like it’s set everywhere, always, because all politicians are liars and self-centred lunatics.”
“It (the film) is about how you gain power and what lengths you go to to hold onto power once you’ve got it,” adds another renowned cast member, Michael Palin.
“So it’s about ambition - generally male ambition - and greed, and ruthlessness, which is happening, possibly, around us as as we speak.”
While US actor Steve Buscemi admits his character, minister for agriculture Nikita Khrushchev, does have a bit of a temper, the Fargo star also describes him as “a survivor who manages to stay on the good side of Stalin, and is a pretty amiable guy for the most part”.
So what role do we see him play following Stalin’s death?
“Khrushchev doesn’t want Beria to take over and so he tries to gain influence with Stalin’s number two, Malenkov (played by Jeffrey Tambor), as whoever can gain influence with Malenkov can influence how things are going to turn out,” explains 59-year-old Buscemi.
The days before the funerals of the Nation’s Father are a scramble for power, with many men overcome by madness, self-interest and inhumanity. What makes Palin think his character, Vyacheslav Molotov, is probably the most calculating of the bunch?
“The way he shows his sort of passion for what he’s doing is this unswerving devotion to Stalin, everything that Stalin represented; even down to sort of denouncing his own much loved wife, and agreeing with Stalin that she should go to prison and all that,” says the 74-year-old,
Other pivotal characters include Field Marshall Zhukov, who Isaacs says in real life was the only person who would speak bluntly to Stalin, “because he had control of the army so they all needed him on their side”.
“The bluntest people I’ve ever met are Yorkshiremen,” the 54-year-old actor continues. “So I phoned Armando and said, ‘can I play him Yorkshire? And he went ‘I don’t see why not’.
“I thought he was funny and monstrous at the same time, which is true of the whole film,” he adds.
How did Iannucci - whose repertoire also boasts political comedies such as The Thick of It and Veep - go about walking the line between innate comedy, and the genuine awfulness of that time in history?
“Going into the film I remember saying to everyone, ‘look, we have to be very respectful of what happened to the people in Russia at the time, and in the Soviet Union at the time’,” he discloses.
“What happened was a very direct consequence of the bizarre goings on within the Kremlin.”
The Death Of Stalin opens on Friday