‘The Death of Stalin’: Armando Iannucci Explores the Nature of Power Through Black Comedy

TheWrap Oscar magazine: “Veep” creator tells TheWrap about the improvisational nature of the film’s kangaroo court climax

The Death of Stalin

A version of this story about Armando Iannucci and “The Death of Stalin” first appeared in the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Long before Donald Trump became president, Italian-born “Veep” creator Armando Iannucci kept an eye on the news from Italy under the leadership of far-right Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and wanted to do a film about authoritarianism. “These are leaders who claim they are for democracy and rise to power through democracy, but use their power to shut down democracy,” Iannucci said in an interview with TheWrap.

“I saw something troubling rising in politics even before Trump, and I wanted to make a film reminding people that just because you have democracy now doesn’t mean you can’t lose it.”

The result was one of the most darkly funny films of 2018, “The Death of Stalin.” In an accelerated, condensed retelling of true events, Joseph Stalin drops dead in Moscow in 1953, and his cabal of aides — Lavrentiy Beria, Georgy Malenkov, Nikita Khrushchev and Vyacheslav Molotov — engage in a farcical power struggle while planning their former leader’s funeral.

While Iannucci’s script is loaded with sharp one-liners, he allowed the cast to chuck as much of it as they wanted out the window in the climactic scene, in which the sadistic Beria (Simon Russell Beale) is executed in a kangaroo trial by the rest of the Soviet leadership. Set inside a farmhouse with the camera squeezed in between the members of the Soviet brass, the once smug and calculating Beria bellows, sputters and finally pleads for his life as Khrushchev reads out the charges against him, including a charge of “347 counts of rape” that might not be as trumped up as it may seem.

“Normally we rehearse a lot, but with that scene I told the cast, ‘You have two minutes. Just get it done,’” he said. “I didn’t care that they skipped some lines or improvised others in the moment, or that you couldn’t hear some because they’re shouting over each other. It’s a contrast to the opening scene where we see this elegant concert, and now it ends with this chaotic scene in a barn where all these people are acting like animals.”

“The Death of Stalin” follows Beria’s fall from power thanks to the schemes of Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), who at first seems to be easily outwitted but turns out to be the most dangerous of Stalin’s underlings. Iannucci noted that this is the way politicians have always gravitated to those in power, abandoning them when advantageous to do so.

“We know that Beria is the one who has their fate in his hands, but the moment that power leaves him, everyone runs away from him as fast as possible, to avoid being associated with him,” the director said. “When Trump was a candidate, there were people who said that he was despicable and there’s no way he can be a leader, and now people are asking him to campaign on their behalf because he has the power. Power easily transforms opinion, and it’s been going on since ancient Rome.”

To read more of TheWrap’s Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue, click here.

OscarWrap Actors Directors Screenwriters 12-07-18 Cover