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Armando Iannucci Finds Humor In ‘The Death Of Stalin’

Comedy writer can’t compete with current political absurdities so he turns to 1953 Russian politics

Photo caption:

Photo credit: IFC Films

Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) tries to decide what to do about Stalin, who lies on the floor after a heart attack in "The Death of Stalin."

Companion viewing

"Life of Brian" (1979)

"Thick of It" (2005-12)

"In the Loop" (2009)

Armando Iannucci, the creator of HBO’s “Veep” and the BBC series “Thick of It,” has a new film called “The Death of Stalin,” and it’s a comedy to die for.

Writer-director Armando Iannucci quit “Veep” because he felt he couldn’t make up anything more absurd than real contemporary American politics was serving up. So for his new political comedy he turns to Russia in the 1950s and hones in on the day Stalin died.

The death of the Russian dictator wreaks havoc within his inner circle most notably amongst those jockeying for power such as Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi in the comedy performance of his career), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor).

“The Death of Stalin” is a brilliant, hilarious, and razor sharp satire that skewers dictatorial leaders and their minions who use fear to rule. Any similarities to current politics is just icing on Iannucci’s comic confection. But as with current politics, Iannucci discovered that many of the most absurd things are based on fact. Sometimes he even had to pull back because reality was so absurd that he felt audiences would push back.

Take the opening of the film. A concert is being broadcast and Stalin calls the sound engineers and requests a recording of the concert. But the concert was going out live and no one bothered to record it so Comrade Andreyev (Paddy Considine) rushes into the hall and forbids anyone — musicians and audience members — from leaving so they can perform the concert again and record it. The panic causes the conductor to pass out and now Andreyev has to scour the nearby neighborhood for another conductor, which he finds. That’s how the scene plays out in the movie.

In real life, Iannucci said the first conductor they brought in proved too drunk to conduct so they had to find a third. That, the filmmaker said, was just too unbelievable. Similarly, it’s hard to believe that Stalin’s son lost an entire hockey team when he forced them to fly in a snowstorm that downed the plane. Then he tried to replace the team with his friends and hoped no one would notice. That’s in the film, too. You can’t make up stuff like that, and that’s the challenge Iannucci faces in creating political comedies.

In “The Death of Stalin,” he finds dark humor in how the paranoia caused by Stalin’s dictatorship prompted people to do absurd things. Iannucci walks a comic tightrope because while he makes savage fun of those in power, he doesn’t want to take lightly the real horrors faced by people who suffered at the dictator’s hands. This kind of comedy takes absolute precision. One degree the wrong direction in the tone, and it fails. But Iannucci is a comic genius.

In his comedy on British politics, “Thick of It” and its feature film spin-off “In the Loop,” he revealed his meticulous skill at writing characters and dialogue that continually hit their comic marks. “The Death of Stalin” displays the same deft skill.

Those familiar with Monty Python’s comedy will recognize not just a similarity of style but also one of the troupe members, Michael Palin, in the cast. Iannucci’s style of comedy definitely follows in Python’s footsteps. The first thing you’ll notice is that there is no attempt at having anyone use a Russian accent.

Everyone speaks in English, and you hear such British turns of phrase as “that was cheeky,” and yet you find yourself more engaged and believing in the story than you might feel in “Red Sparrow” where everyone painstakingly tries to use a Russian accent, and all you can think about is how fake they all sound.

In some ways, the English and American accents work in the comedy’s favor. It points to how universal the things Iannucci is poking fun at are. The misuse of power or the use of terror to control people is nothing new and can be found all over the globe.

“The Death of Stalin” (rated R for language throughout, violence and some sexual references) is both hilarious and horrific and every inch brilliant.

Check out my Cinema Junkie podcast with Armando Iannucci.

Armando Iannucci, the creator of HBO’s “Veep” and the BBC series “Thick of It,” has a new film called “The Death of Stalin,” and it’s a comedy to die for.

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