Belfast Telegraph

'People circulated joke books about Stalin ... it was the only way they could think of to keep their sanity'


Soviet Russia in the Fifties isn't the first topic that comes to mind when you think of comedy. But, based on true events, comes a satire about the days before the funerals of the Nation's Father. Georgia Humphreys talks with the cast and director of The Death of Stalin.

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 Fifties 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 adds. "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.

For Andrea Riseborough, who plays Stalin's daughter, Svetlana, the piece is "wonderfully reflective".

"And that's why it's so hysterically funny, and tragic," elaborates the 35-year-old, who can also be seen in Battle of the Sexes. "If it was a piece of architecture, it would be a brutalist piece. It's depressingly timely, hilariously funny."

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."

On whether he thinks the film is applicable to issues such as Donald Trump and Brexit, 56-year-old acclaimed theatre actor Simon Russell Beale, who takes on the character of Lavrentiy Beria, says: "I think throughout history it's been about improvising, about making it up as you go along, in the political world.

"I think it's as applicable now as it ever was."

"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 we speak."

Dictator’s demise: the death of Stalin leads to a scramble for power

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.

"But he surprises everyone, including himself, by taking over after Stalin is dead, without even knowing that that's what he's doing."

The days before the funeral 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?

Andrea Riseborough

"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, famous for comedies such as Monty Python. "He's a pretty complex character.

"But he's kind of slightly set back from the others, it's almost as though he's taken it very, very personally, the fall of Stalin; he can't quite deal with him until he's persuaded that getting rid of Beria is the thing to do, and then he becomes, sort of, rather manically vicious."

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 adds. "So I phoned Armando and said, 'can I play him Yorkshire? And he went 'I don't see why not'.

"I thought that he was funny and monstrous at the same time, which is true of the whole film."

Asked if comedy and satire is even more important in times of political darkness, Palin responds: "Absolutely, because comedy is very difficult to close down.

"You can take it off TV, or you can say 'you shouldn't do this', but it's always going to be there somewhere, we always want something to laugh at.

"And very often the darkest times, that's when you need laughter the most, and that's where some of the best humour comes from."

"When Stalin was slaughtering everyone around him, and people lived in absolute terror of looking in the wrong direction and having an entire family wiped out, they circulated joke books about Stalin," affirms Isaacs.

"It was the only way they could keep their sanity."

"What we tried to do was send up the ridiculous nature of just how horrible and brutal things were," adds Riseborough, when discussing how she approached the role.

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. So the comedy really arises out of what's going on inside, and it's sort of neurotic, hysterical behaviour of people just trying to survive, and then the very real consequences of their decisions outside.

He adds: "And if we follow both simultaneously, that's how we get the, kind of, the balance between the two."

The Death of Stalin is in cinemas today

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