If there’s a recurring theme in Armando Iannucci’s work, it’s that politics is grim and absurd and the people involved in it are often awful.
His HBO show Veep, arguably the funniest thing on TV, is a relentlessly cynical satire of Washington insiders. It’s hard to find another show on TV — now or ever — that captures the groveling, greedy underbelly of Capitol Hill quite like Veep. His 2009 black comedy In the Loop was similarly unsparing in its satirical take on the bureaucratic blunders behind the Iraq War.
Iannucci’s latest movie, The Death of Stalin, is something different. It’s funny and dark but also subtle and serious in ways his earlier stuff isn’t. As Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson writes in her full review, “it’s bleak stuff.”
The film explores life in Russia right after the death of Josef Stalin in 1953, focusing on the tyrant’s inner circle. Much of the comedy comes from watching Stalin’s toadies jockey for power in his absence, but the film really connects as a strange — and yet somehow amusing — glimpse of how fear penetrates a totalitarian society down to the bone.
I spoke with Iannucci by phone this week. I asked him about sycophants in politics, the psychology of totalitarianism, and, of course, Donald Trump.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Your new movie The Death of Stalin is about politics, but it’s also about the seedy, sycophantic people that world attracts. Do you think politics turns people into amoral sycophants, or do you think amoral sycophants are drawn to politics?
I think amoral sycophants are pretty clearly attracted to politics, but I’m not sure I want to say politics turns people into sycophants. You know, we always hear about the terrible people involved in politics, and there’s a lot of them, but there are also people who fight the good fight and who go into politics because they want to achieve something worthwhile.
I can’t speak as much to American politics, but my experience in the UK is that most people go into politics because they really think they can do some good. Then it becomes a case of what you do once you’re caught up in a machine that is basically bad and corrupt. Working in politics means having your moral compass challenged almost every day and from every angle. That doesn’t always turn out well, but it makes for interesting comedy.
Let’s talk about the role of fear in this film, which is loosely based on real-world events. The thing that jumped out to me was how deeply and widely the fear of Stalin penetrated Russian society, even after he died. He’s in everyone’s head, all the time, and there’s no escape. This is really the essence of totalitarianism, and The Death of Stalin satirizes the hell out of it.
I wanted to show fear — real, shadowy, pervasive fear. I wanted laughs too, of course, but I really wanted to show fear. I wanted to make the audience feel anxious throughout. I wanted to capture the level of anxiety that everyone must have had living under this kind of tyranny. So it was a very specific kind of reaction I was trying to get out of the audience, something that would give them a sense of the panic and the confusion and the desperation.
And what makes the fear so consuming is this feeling that you’re always being watched, always being investigated. That’s why you see this sycophancy, as you put it, or this need to please and scheme and kind of watch your back. I mean, how do we expect people to behave if they think they’ll go to prison if they say or think the wrong thing? What could be worse than that?
You decided to have the actors speak in their natural accents (mostly English) rather than asking them to use fake Russian accents. Are you suggesting something about the universality of the story?
Well, I wanted it to feel real and authentic, and I thought it would fall flat if it was subtitled or if the actors were putting on fake accents. But yeah, I also thought the story had to feel both like Russia in 1950 and like everywhere at any time.
Why everywhere at any time? What does a film about Stalin’s death have to say about politics today?
Initially, I wanted to do a fictional film about a contemporary dictator, and then I found the graphic novel The Death of Stalin and decided this was a better story to tell. But I’m always interested in the line between democracy and kleptocracy or autocracy. Take someone like Selina Meyer, the protagonist of Veep. She has her faults but she also has her strengths, and she basically plays by the rules of democracy.
What worries me today is we’re seeing a breed of politician who doesn’t play by the rules of democracy, who uses the methods of democracy to acquire personal power and will do anything, including changing the rules, to stay in power.
So I’m thinking of people like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy or Vladimir Putin in Russia or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey. And then there’s someone like Donald Trump, who questions judges and defies democratic norms and attacks the press and any person or institution that challenges him. He’s not Stalin by any measure, but these are worrisome signs.
I wasn’t going to ask about Trump, since everyone’s asking you about Trump. But you brought him up, so I’ll say this: The Death of Stalin has a lot to say about the moral cowardice of people in positions of power. And it’s hard to miss how many people in American politics have swallowed their principles in order to gain influence or stay close to power.
I was in the middle of editing this film when Trump was elected, so it was written and shot long before all of this. But I remember watching that famous Cabinet meeting where Trump just goes around the table while each member of the Cabinet showers him with ridiculous praise, and all I could think about was the committee meeting in the film where every vote is unanimous because everyone capitulates to whatever they think they have to capitulate to.
The most frightening thing of the last 18 months has been watching the number of senior politicians who spoke out against Trump when he was a candidate and said he was not fit for office, only to later go quiet and pretend like they never said what they said. That’s terrifying to me, the lack of principled opposition. And it’s a reminder that it’s not about the Constitution or some piece of paper; it’s about people and what they do or don’t do.
I think the point is that we shouldn’t assume we’re safe because we have a democracy. Democracy is not a permanent thing; it’s whatever the people make it. And if fewer people take part in politics or don’t want to participate, then democracy changes or it goes away.