Historically accurate, soberly frightening and frequently hilarious, Armando Iannucci's tragicomic feature "The Death of Stalin" has been hailed as the best political satire since "Dr. Strangelove."
The film, featuring Steve Buscemi and Monty Python alum Michael Palin, is a seriously funny look at the chaotic power struggle among Russia's ruling elite after the passing of iron-fisted Josef Stalin. His unexpected stroke plunged the nation into paranoia, uncertainty and near civil war.
Exploring the irony of political maneuvering is not a new step for Scottish-born Iannucci, the film's director and co-writer. He created HBO's "Veep," starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a conniving, unprincipled politician. The show has been nominated for an Emmy for best comedy series every year since its debut in 2012, and won last year.
"The Death of Stalin" was licensed for distribution in cinemas by Russia's culture ministry, then suddenly banned before the nation's recent election. Officials called it "blasphemous," "vile, repugnant and insulting," "ideological warfare" that depicted "our great war marshals as … idiots."
In a recent phone conversation, Iannucci said that the ban was disappointing but that he always intended to describe the era and its characters in an aptly upsetting way.
"It's based around a lot of true incidents, actually."
Iannucci had been thinking of making a project based on the idea of totalitarianism, "how a person, by force of personality, could terrorize an entire nation. I'd been reading about Chairman Mao and having a little look at Putin, as well."
He was approached by a company that owned the rights to a popular French graphic novel about the post-Stalin chaos and found himself "captivated by the way it told the story. I wanted instantly to make it. I could see how to make it absurdly funny in a grim, farcical way. Where it would be comic and where it would be horrifying."
Balancing both elements didn't strike him as an impassible hurdle, he said.
"The comedy is not alien to the action. When people are terrified, and they panic, and are nervous, and don't know what to do, and try to outthink each other, I think the only way you can portray that is with comedy. Because they behave in a comic way against their will. That's not to say the comedy belittles the significance of the wider story. It's a way of commenting on it."
The film is respectful of what happened to people in the Soviet Union at the time, he said, showing secret police raids and troops firing on unarmed citizens. "The comedy is what's going on in the Kremlin among the people in the leader's circle. The tragedy is the consequence of what these people are doing.
"It's a comedy of madness, really. The arguments where these men have to believe one thing and then the opposite of it again, and the opposite of it again, and having to be unanimous, that's madness. Madness is comedy, in a very constricted form. It's irrationality, hyper-dense."
Iannucci also wanted to "plant this feeling of fear, dread, in the audience. Comedy's all about anticipation, the setup and the buildup and then the punch line. Not that different from the rhythm of horror. It's really interesting that 'Get Out' [about an interracial relationship that goes fatally wrong] is written and directed by Jordan Peele, who cut his teeth doing comedy. It has that sensibility about how to build up people's expectations and then subvert them."
Iannucci found inspiration in Charlie Chaplin's Hitler-mocking masterpiece "The Great Dictator."
"It is farce and slapstick and horror and the Jewish ghettos. I never have thought that because you make something the subject of a comedy you've denigrated or reduced it. I think comedy just gives you another way of analyzing something," he said.
Iannucci plans to move in another new direction with his next film, an adaptation of Charles Dickens' "David Copperfield." In an intriguing casting choice, he recruited "Slumdog Millionaire" star Dev Patel to take the title role.
"David starts off as young and naive and then grows stronger. Dev has that kind of warmth and charm but vulnerability. He was my immediate choice when I thought I'd make the movie," Iannucci said.
He intends to keep the narrative set in the 19th century even though "it's a very modern novel by a very modern writer. He touches on themes that are very contemporary about aspirations and worry about your status in society — personal doubts about friends you get and want to move away from, wealth and poverty and homelessness and the mistakes you make as you grow up. It's set in 1840 but my approach is to shoot it not like we should be aware that we're in another time."
Similar to "The Death of Stalin," Iannucci sees it as "not a period drama" but a dark comedy with enduring appeal.