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'Death of Stalin' Cast Holds Out Hope for Russian Screening Despite Ban

'Death of Stalin' Wows Viewers at Sundance, Brings Russian Censors to Life in Moscow
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Just two days before its scheduled release in Russian theaters, a tongue-in-check black comedy about Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, "The Death of Stalin," has been banned by the Kremlin's Culture Ministry.

In Park City, Utah, however, where British director Armando Iannucci and several cast members are still presenting the film, a slight optimism still pervades.

FILE - Actor Jason Isaacs, writer and director Armando Iannucci, actors Andrea Riseborough, Michael Palin, Paul Whitehouse and David Schneider at UK premiere of 'The Death of Stalin', in London, Oct. 17, 2017.
FILE - Actor Jason Isaacs, writer and director Armando Iannucci, actors Andrea Riseborough, Michael Palin, Paul Whitehouse and David Schneider at UK premiere of 'The Death of Stalin', in London, Oct. 17, 2017.

While many Russians are doubtful the film could screen prior to upcoming presidential elections, Iannucci, creator of "Veep," HBO's serial political satire, told VOA that his team had done a lot of preparatory work for the filming, reading archives and talking with historians, and that no one should take offense to the film's satirical treatment.

"We are very respectful of what happened in the Soviet Union and what happened in the 1950s, to the people, and we do not hide that in the film," Iannucci said an interview with VOA's Russian Service. He said Russians who had seen the film said "two things" to him: "It’s very funny and it’s true."

Stalin's allies

Chronicling the backstabbing and infighting among the Soviet leader's closest allies as they vie for power immediately after Stalin's death, the film, which has earned accolades in Britain, was slated for release in advance of the 75th anniversary of the end of the 200-day Battle of Stalingrad, which is observed nationwide on Feb. 2.

"This is an obvious imposition and an insult to our civil and national feelings," Yuri Polyakov, head of the Culture Ministry's public advisory board, was quoted in news reports. "Everyone said that, from the professional point of view, this is a very bad film, absolutely false. This is a model of ideological struggle with our country."

Commenting on the decision, Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky said in a statement on the ministry’s website: “We don’t have censorship. We’re not afraid of critical or hard-hitting assessments of our history. In this department, we could give anyone a run for their money. But there’s a moral boundary between the critical analysis of history and pure mockery.”

People walk past a poster of the movie "Death of Stalin" at a cinema in Moscow, Russia. Picture taken Jan. 22, 2018.
People walk past a poster of the movie "Death of Stalin" at a cinema in Moscow, Russia. Picture taken Jan. 22, 2018.

In Russia, where the film was privately viewed only by Culture Ministry officials and a coterie of advisers, the audience felt it would pose a grievous affront to Russia’s World War II veterans whom they credit with overcoming fascism.

According to one of the film’s main Russian detractors, former State Duma deputy Pavel Pozhigailo, the film, based on a graphic novel of the same name, portrays Georgy Zhukov, Stalin's deputy commander-in-chief, as a buffoon.

Actor Jason Isaacs, who played Zhukov, is not surprised by such a reaction from members of Russia's political elite.

For Isaacs, however, the reaction of his Eastern European friend — whose mother’s entire family was deported by Stalin to the gulag — is much more important.

"They're desperate to see it," he told VOA. "One of the ways they kept sane [during that time] was by laughing. At the time, people lived in absolute terror, [so] they circulated joke books about Stalin just to keep a sense of identity."

"I think comedy is only funny if you really believe it’s true," said actress Andrea Riseborough, who plays Stalin's daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, whom many Americans know as “Lana Peters.”

"So, weirdly, when you are inside the comedy, it’s incredibly dramatic," Riseborough said. "That’s why it’s funny."

Black satire

For Riseborough, whom Variety recently called "the breakout star of Sundance [2018]" — with no less than four films debuting in festival's the opening weekend — it was Alliluyeva's sheer grit that leavened some of the film's blacker satire.

"It's amazing that she was so resilient, she was incredibly resourceful," Riseborough told VOA, adding that she looked to Canadian author Rosemary Sullivan's "Daughter of Stalin," published in 2015, for character insights.

"That she survived for as long as she did... I can’t imagine what the emotional toll is to have a father like Stalin," she said. "That was probably the hardest thing about playing her part, just spending time imagining what that would be like."

Emmy-nominated composer Chris Willis, who has worked on the seven seasons of "Veep," said that, at first, he tried unsuccessfully to recreate the music of Shostakovich and Weinberg to portray the era of the 1950s USSR.

"With this kind of comedy, the key thing is really to stay in character like the actors — not really to wink, not really to make any jokes," he said. "Just a slight sense that all the music is a little too pompous and extreme, and that kind of invites you to laugh. But mostly there is no laughs in the music. The music is playing very straight."

For director Iannucci, the film's overall tone is so vastly nuanced that its negative reception in the Kremlin, he suggested, may be limited to Communist Party stalwarts. The film's political character composites, he added, draw from well beyond Kremlin leaders.

"The reason I made this film is I detected in a lot of politicians — not just [President Vladimir] Putin, but we see [U.S. President Donald] Trump as well, [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan in Turkey, and even [Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi as was in Italy," he said. "This sense of a strongman in the center who has complete control and complete authority."

Large-scale discussion

In Russia, Wednesday's Culture Ministry decisions has triggered a large-scale discussion. Among those dissatisfied with the ban is the film critic Anton Dolin, editor-in-chief of the Moscow-based Art of Cinema journal.

"Those who initiated or supported the ban on the comedy 'The Death of Stalin' at the state level, thereby confessed, aloud and unequivocally: 'Yes, we are Stalinists,' " read a post on Dolin's personal Facebook page. "So that there is no misunderstanding: the Stalinists are those who consider Stalin a hero and a role model (in all its variations or in some, it does not matter), and find laughing at him unacceptable."

Yelena Drapeko of the parliament’s culture committee told Moscow-based RBK news that she had “never seen anything so disgusting in my life.”

The film, she added, contains “extremist” elements.

"The Death of Stalin" is scheduled to be released in the U.S. theaters on March 9.