Armando Iannucci, the creator of Veep, In the Loop, and a small battalion of British shows marrying cringe comedy and machine-gun cursing, was working on season four of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s blackhearted White House satire when a French producer sent him a copy of The Death of Stalin, a graphic novel about the aftermath of the Soviet dictator’s 1953 demise. Veep’s surprising success had forestalled Iannucci’s pursuit of an ambitious series of film projects (including a modern adaptation of Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield), but after four seasons, he was ready to rejoin his family in a London suburb and to expand his scope beyond television — and democracy. “Part of the reason I wanted to stop doing Veep was that politicians have less power than they want,” he says on a call from his home. “Power now lurks in cyberspace, multinationals, social media, fake news.”
The Glasgow-born, Oxford-educated son of an Italian anti-Fascist, Iannucci, 54, has always been a few steps ahead of the pack. In the early ’90s, he created Steve Coogan’s offensive talk-show host, Alan Partridge, a character Ricky Gervais cites as a major influence on The Office. In the aughts, Iannucci took his carving knife to the reign of political spin doctors — first in British government (The Thick of It), then in an Iraq War–like fiasco (In the Loop). And then he set a show in Veep’s Washington, the world’s grandest stage for ambitious creeps. But in recent years, Iannucci began to notice that “something odd was happening”: From Turkey to Russia and even in pockets of the West, populism was on the rise and democracy in retreat. Trump and Brexit were, to steal a quote from a stammering In the Loop official, “unforeseeable but then … suddenly very real and inevitable.”
So Iannucci was already “reading around classic dictators,” hoping to make a movie about a fictional Western strongman, when The Death of Stalin fell into his lap. “I don’t really do other people’s work, but I was instantly hooked,” he says of Fabien Nury’s graphic novel. “I love that it starts off with this innocuous little phone call” — Stalin’s request for a recording of a concert. The terrified orchestra has to repeat its performance, and the pianist tucks a hateful note to Stalin in the record sleeve. “He reads the note, falls over; no one will knock on the door until the next day … One thing leads to another, and it just gets more and more claustrophobic and terrifying — and yet funny.”
The graphic novel isn’t very funny at all, but Iannucci’s movie is — until it really, really isn’t. It’s a hybrid of slapstick and horror, authenticity and camp. Iannucci stuck faithfully to the basic timeline and the look of postwar Moscow, but not much else. The accents in the Central Committee of the Communist Party range from the staccato cockney of Joseph Stalin (played by Adrian McLoughlin) to Nikita Khrushchev’s Brooklyn squawk (Steve Buscemi’s signature blend of whine and rage). Red Army general Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) seems to be from Yorkshire.
“The Kremlin was full of dialects and languages,” Iannucci explains. The mix of accents and moods also lays bare the improvised mess behind the façade of a monolithic police state, setting a tone that falls somewhere between Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. As Khrushchev and secret-police chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) struggle for power under the vain and waffling interim leader Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), there’s room for pratfalls, set pieces, and backstabbing banter among the midnight raids and massacres.
“It’s not Veep in the Soviet Union,” says Iannucci. “I didn’t want anyone to think that the comedy was about what happened to the Russian people.” It’s still, like his other work, a comedy about the moral failures in charge. Only this time, the terror is real. Iannucci’s most memorable creation, Downing Street flack Malcolm Tucker (as immortalized by Peter Capaldi), was a virtuoso of obscenity, floridly describing the disembowelment of his enemies, but the worst thing he ever actually did was leak information. Stalin’s Beria, meanwhile, orders torture and murder with the distracted air of a customer at Starbucks: “Shoot her first, but make sure he sees it,” he tosses off to a subordinate.
Iannucci was surprised how well the structure of comedy suited the movie’s darkest moments. A sample “punch line”: Stalin’s ministers drive away from his dacha, jockeying comically for position behind the truck carrying his coffin. Seconds after they leave, a secret-police cleanup crew arrives to wipe out every trace of the country house — carpets, papers, and especially people. Finally, the officer leading the cleanup is shot by his superior. “You shouldn’t feel it as a joke,” says Iannucci, “but it’s how I would cut together a lot of funny visuals.”
The actors improvised as much as they would on any Iannucci set. For one of the movie’s most horrifying scenes, “I said, ‘Just go in there and get him tried and shot in two minutes. Just get through it because I want it to be an ugly mess.’ ” (Beale, a theater veteran, calls it “one of the most thrilling scenes I’ve ever done.”) Stalin’s succession was indeed an ugly mess, but the true version was purged from Russia’s official history. As Khrushchev warns Stalin’s daughter, “People get killed when their stories don’t fit.”
Two days before The Death of Stalin’s release in Russia, Putin’s government withdrew the movie’s permit, calling it a “mockery” and “abomination.” “It’s the most ham-handed way of censoring something, which is drawing attention to it,” Iannucci says. This is what makes evil so dangerous, he adds: how improvised it is. “It’s not that somebody just says ‘What evil thing will I do today?’ It’s somebody trying to hold on to power and becoming paranoid and then deciding that the best way to survive is to kill those he’s suspicious of. It sickens the mind and the personality.”
Which brings us to Donald Trump. “I’m not comparing Trump to Stalin,” says Iannucci, “but he really does believe that everything he’s done got universal praise — apart from the naysayers … He’s not saying ‘I’m lying to these people, and I think I got away with it.’ He’s saying ‘I’m telling these people what I see; why don’t they believe me?’ ” It’s not Trump’s behavior that surprises Iannucci but the complicity of his party, closing ranks like Stalin’s henchmen in return for a tax cut. “That’s the real scandal,” he says.
In Britain, Iannucci is a regular presence in newspapers and on political shows, as much a pundit as an entertainer. But future projects will take him ever further from the subject. He’s working on a series for HBO called Avenue 5, about a futuristic tribe of space tourists. He’s writing a dystopian novel, a decade in the making. What he can’t imagine doing is running for office, which would require rhetorical gymnastics even he can’t master. “You have to be able to argue your point even when you don’t believe it,” he says. “I wouldn’t survive.”
*This article appears in the March 5, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!