Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Classic Movie Review: Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator

Charlie Chaplin was ahead of his time in most respects when it came to his filmmaking. The greatest irony being that he was late to the game when it came to making talking films. His first film conceived and made completely with dialogue was The Great Dictator, released in 1940 – more than a decade after the advent of synchronized sound and dialogue. But even if he was the last significant holdout clinging to silent film, The Great Dictator was well ahead of the curve in terms of world politics.


There were few people in America in the late 1930s who had strong feelings one way or the other about Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany. As far as the United States was concerned, they were just another fascist party controlling a European nation, having little to do with the day-to-day of American life. Even after the invasion of Poland and the establishment of Jewish ghettos, or the pogroms against Jews throughout Europe, there was still little to move the American people. But Charlie Chaplin was right there, crafting a satirical view of Hitler as early as 1938.

Chaplin plays a dual role in the film. Having been told of his resemblance to the dictator he plays Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomainia as well as a Jewish barber in a ghetto. The titles tell us that any similarity between the two mean is purely coincidental, but there’s an obvious touch of irony involved as Chaplin was often mistaken for being Jewish and there is still some controversy over whether Hitler himself was part Jewish. The Jewish barber role has some resemblance to the classic Tramp role that Chaplin created in 1914 except that he speaks and doesn’t wear the bowler. But there is an element of physical comedy silliness to some of it, particularly in one comic set piece that has the beautiful ghetto resident Hannah (Paulette Godard) protecting the barber by whacking two S.S. officers in the head with a frying pan. When she accidentally gets Chaplin, he executes the last great comic dance scene of his career as he stumbles back and forth along the street teetering on the brink of unconsciousness.

Through the lens of history, it is somewhat shocking to watch The Great Dictator today. It is naively flippant in its treatment of a Jewish ghetto as a place where Jews have to live undignified lives enclosed in a small area of the city and also in its depiction of Hynkel as a silly man with a self image problem. Honestly, in 1939 when the film was made, there was little indication of the horrors that were to come. Chaplin has said that if he’d known at the time what was really going on in Europe and how Jews were being treated, he wouldn’t have been so careless. Our knowledge of what happened changes how we see the film. That’s why Mel Brooks’ The Producers was so scandalous for many people when it was made 27 years later. In 1940, Adolf Hitler was largely seen as an idiosyncratic leader who riled the people with stirring speeches. Chaplin has great fun by giving Hynkel belligerent sounding speeches spoken in gibberish German.

The separate stories of the barber and of Hynkel are told in parallel until the two plot lines converge and their resemblance to one another becomes essential. The barber’s story starts in the first world war when he saves the life of an officer named Schultz (Reginald Gardiner). Schultz later becomes an S.S. commander who decrees that the barber and all his friends are not to be bothered in the ghetto. Meanwhile, Hynkel has a country to run and peace negotiations to carry out with the dictator of neighboring Bacteria, Benzino Napaloni (a great comic performance by Jack Oakie), with whom they are about to go to war over the invasion of Osterlich. Chaplin employs his signature comic satire here as Napaloni and Hynkel try to negotiate a settlement but can’t decide whether the treaty should first be signed and then the Bacterian troops removed from the border or vice versa.

A lot has been made of the film’s closing moments in which the Jewish barber, posing as Hynkel, stands before the multitudes to give a speech and begins espousing a doctrine of brotherly love and peace rather than belligerence. Is this truly a speech that the barber would give or are we witnessing Chaplin himself stepping into his own movie to deliver a message? My reading is that the barber would not be able to deliver any speech, let alone one so stirring. His feelings of inadequacy before stepping up to the microphone seem more in keeping with his nature. So then it’s Chaplin, staring directly into camera, urging the world to forego violence and hate. Clearly it didn’t achieve its desired effect because the world still went to war and millions died and the Holocaust remains one of the greatest embarrassments of human history, but there is a nobility in the attempt to make a change. Chaplin’s films were always in some way about changing opinions even if it was something as simple as accepting the little guy for who he is. In The Great Dictator, it’s the little guy who gets to wear the dictator outfit, step up to the plate and swing for the fences. To me it’s a fitting close to his last great and in many ways greatest movie.

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