It is 1953 in the Soviet Union, and Joseph Stalin reigns. As his cabinet of cronies panders to him by pantomiming grenades with tomatoes and taking jabs at the long-dead Trotsky, ostensible enemies of the people are being rounded up around the country to be imprisoned, tortured and executed. It’s a nightly routine revolving around paranoia, peril and privilege, and it’s all turned upside-down once the dictator collapses on the floor of his office. In an instant, every rule of his regime has been rendered moot as a power vacuum emerges.
For historians, it’s the beginning of a turbulent transition in power that leaves a trail of blood and betrayal. For director Armando Iannucci, it’s ripe for a punchline, but also that first part. “It is comedy and tragedy plus time,” he stated in an interview with The Daily Californian.
The Scottish political satirist behind HBO’s “Veep” and “In the Loop,” a delightful send-up of First World relations during the Bush-Blair years, steps away from contemporary politics with his latest film. “The Death of Stalin” brings Iannucci’s trademark mockery of cutthroat politics into a literal realm, poking fun at the pettiness that emerges from the power squabble while never shying away from the deplorable nature of the situation.
“We want it to be funny. But we have to be respectful of what happened to the people in the Soviet Union. … We’ll be tactful in how we show it, but we’re not going to hide it,” Iannucci said. “I was aware of the fact that we were doing this high comedy, and yet really kind of grim subject matter. The only way I stood a chance of making it work together is if I based both on the same source material, which was the truth.”
Of course, it’s as much truth as can be told through a bunch of English-speaking actors in period costume uttering dialogue peppered with delectable modern profanity in their native accents. Though the film plays fast and loose recounting the exact details and chronology of history, the potent air of fear it conjures up remains its defining trait.
Many of the most morbidly absurd details are rooted in reality, recreated from stories discovered during the creative team’s research in Russia. The crew spoke to people who grew up in the Soviet Union at the time, asking them to recall living in fear of the government day to day. “How did (they) get through the nights thinking any day there might be a knock on the door?” Iannucci recounted. “And they said, ‘Oh, well you go to bed with lots of layers of clothes on. So if you got pulled out in the middle of the night, you got clothes with you.’ So we just put that in.”
Adding to the sense of tension is the grab bag of talent Iannucci has assembled for his farce, each actor functioning in a unique mode of performance. Steve Buscemi recalls some of his early gangster roles as the runty yet cruel Nikita Khrushchev, while Simon Russell Beale, a stage actor, lets his posture do the talking as Lavrenti Beria.
Iannucci sought variety in his ensemble to foster a sense of mismatched competition within the film. “They had to be comfortable with each other and know each other, but the only thing they had in common (was) that they had survived and worked for Stalin,” the filmmaker said. “I liked the idea of a variety of different kinds of sounds and styles coming together.”
An unfortunate inclusion among the cast is Jeffrey Tambor, who was accused of sexual harassment by “Transparent” co-star Trace Lysette and the actor’s former personal assistant Van Barnes last year. Though “The Death of Stalin” was released in the United Kingdom before Lysette and Barnes spoke on their experiences, it remains fairly jarring to see Tambor play make-believe in the role of a willfully ignorant monster.
“I don’t quite know what the truth is and it needs to be resolved,” Iannucci said on the matter. “But I think as people watch the film they can separate that off from it.”
Some may, but plenty will have trouble reconciling Tambor’s inclusion with the finger-pointing of the film.
Exposures to atrocity — whether narrative or extratextual — and an alternatively humored and mournful laissez-faire attitude characterize the “The Death of Stalin” as a product of its time, even if it was filmed about two years ago. Iannucci expressed his own bafflement toward the current political landscape, specifically with the post-Brexit minority British government acting as if it were a majority. He stated, in a rehearsed yet wholly earnest tone, “It’s bizarre. And I think everyone thinks it’s bizarre. I think even the politicians think it’s bizarre, but they can’t even think of anything else to do.”
After a pause, Iannucci drew a line back to the film and the half-life of Stalinism that immobilizes some of its ladder-climbers. “It’s because they’ve, for 20 years, forced themselves to just believe what it is that they have to believe. … That capacity to have their own set of beliefs is gone.” The calculated, party-pleasing stances made by modern politicians to maintain power are only a few nudges away from Iannucci’s Russian rat race, where a careerist move is practically a survivalist one.
“The Death of Stalin” opens tonight at Shattuck Cinemas.
Jackson Kim Murphy covers film. Contact him at [email protected].