The Great Dictator (1940)

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The Great Dictator (1940)

The Great Dictator (1940). 124 minutes. Directed by Charlie Chaplin. Starring Charlie Chaplin (as Jewish barber/Adenoid Hynkel), Paulette Goddard (as Hannah), Maurice Moscovitch (as Mr. Jaeckel), Emma Dunn (as Mrs. Jaeckel), Bernard Gorcey (as Mr. Mann), Paul Weigel (as Mr. Agar), Jack Oakie (as Benzino Napaloni), Reginald Gardiner (as Commander Schultz), Henry Daniell (as Garbitsch), and Billy Gilbert (as Herring). Written, produced, and scored by Charlie Chaplin.

The Great Dictator was in its time and remains today a daring film. Through bizarre coincidence, the movie takes advantage of a unique opportunity for one titan to skewer another—that is, the English comedian with the famous toothbrush mustache lampoons the German dictator with the famous toothbrush mustache. As a comedy about the Nazi regime, and much like its contemporary To Be or Not to Be (1942), The Great Dictator may be hard for some to stomach now as it was then, in spite of its use of revered silent-era star Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin plays two roles in the film: the ruthless dictator Adenoid Hynkel (a parody of Hitler) and a nameless Jewish barber whose stories intertwine and whose identities are ultimately and climactically mistaken. The way that these two characters can be confused for each other speaks to the fact that they are both played by the same actor, but the implied comparison between the look and fame of Chaplin the actor and Hitler the dictator is always oddly looming.

During World War One in the fictional country of Tomainia, an anonymous Jewish soldier is injured while helping the pilot Schultz and is confined to a hospital with amnesia for decades. One day he leaves the hospital and returns to his former place of work, a boarded-up barber shop, but he finds signs of the Nazi takeover everywhere: storm troopers mark his shop and the shops of others in the ghetto with the word “JEW” and taunt, harass, and assault people in the streets. The lovely Hannah and the Jaeckel family that she works for live next door and care for the barber as he acclimates to the new society.

Meanwhile, dictator Adenoid Hynkel rules over Tomainia with an iron fist. Schultz has worked his way up the government but is sympathetic to the Jews. When he discovers storm troopers harassing his old barber friend in the streets, he orders them to leave the entire neighborhood alone. For a while the barber, Hannah, and the Jaeckels live in peace, but soon Hynkel ousts Schultz from the government for being soft on Jews, sending him to a concentration camp. A hunt begins for the barber, who hides out with Hannah and the Jaeckels. Schultz escapes and comes to live with them, but he and the barber are both caught and sent to the camps. Hannah and the Jaeckels flee to the neighboring country of Osterlich. Shortly afterwards, Hynkel invades Osterlich, just as the barber and Schultz escape from the concentration camp dressed as German officers. Hynkel is mistaken for the barber, arrested, and sent to a concentration camp, while the barber is mistaken for Hynkel and asked to speak to the nation. He implores the country to pursue kindness and gentleness. Finally, he addresses Hannah and tells her not to give up hope.

This movie was Chaplin’s first all-sound film; he had made Modern Times in 1936, which was largely silent in spite of its having been filmed during the sound period. Chaplin is, of course, primarily known for being a silent film actor, and The Great Dictator bears the markings of some of the characteristic silent pantomime behavior exhibited in other Chaplin movies such as The Gold Rush (1925). For example, when the barber runs from the storm troopers in the ghetto, he skids and hops when he stops running. The scene where the Jewish characters are served special puddings that are designed to reveal who will be assigned a dangerous mission to protect Schultz is also reminiscent of silent hijinks. There are definitely hints of Chaplin’s famous Little Tramp character in the barber, although the barber is not obviously the Little Tramp. The barber does, however, sneak smiles at Hannah in the same way that we have seen the Tramp smile, and he also dresses in clothing that is vaguely reminiscent of the Tramp’s costume.

But Chaplin also shows us in this movie that he is a gifted voice actor. He recites his dialogue as the barber in a reserved and fairly quiet voice, whereas his projections as Adenoid Hynkel are loud, brutish, and over the top. He actually does an excellent job of reproducing the erratic shouting of Hitler, shifting in and out of fake German for effect. For example, when we first see Chaplin as Hynkel, he is addressing the nation. Viewers who are unfamiliar with German might at first think that Hynkel’s German is authentic in this speech, but then Hynkel does an odd thing: he ends a word and starts to spit out strange monosyllables, growing increasingly quiet, as if he is a sputtering car coming to a stop. Chaplin is just making odd noises, with the result that this speech becomes a sort of commentary on Hitler’s German itself, with its hard plosives and strident bursts. It might as well be nonsense talk, the performance tells us, and in fact in this movie, it is.

A similar joke occurs when Hynkel is in his office dictating to a stenographer. He utters a long word, which she types as a few letters, than dictates a short word, which she records with epic type. This joke is a joke of expectations (we expect her to type a long word for a long word and a short word for a short word), but it is also a roundabout reference to the length of German words; German compounds are notoriously complex, and here even Hynkel is surprised that it takes so many letters to write out what he thinks is a simple term. With this joke, we move from a critique of Hitler’s speech delivery style to a critique of the German language, which while funny, nevertheless seems less in scope.

For the most part, however, the humor is focused on politics rather than culture, and sharply at that. Probably the greatest sketch in the movie is the sequence where Hynkel, alone in his office, picks up a globe of the world and begins to bounce it around the room. He performs a surreal, slow-motion dance with it as if it were a bubble, tapping it with his head, his hands, and finally his bottom. Backed up by an epic Wagnerian soundtrack, Chaplin interacts with the globe in a bathetic mock ballet. The scene is ridiculously silly and surreal, capturing the dictator engaging in absurd playful behavior with the symbol of the world he seeks to dominate as if he were a goofy child. This, the movie offers, is what Hynkel does behind closed doors in his free time. The result is that his ambitions look ludicrous, infantile, boob-like. It is a wildly audacious scene. It also has a strange cartoon-like quality to it that reminded me of the Warner Bros. shorts that lampooned the Third Reich during the war years.

There are other cartoonish moments in the movie, so the globe scene, while exceptional, does not feel out of place. Chaplin is pushing and pulling at the limits of the probable in order to lampoon figures of titanic ego and stature. For example, there is the scene where Hynkel gets excited in his office, dances towards the windows, and scales the tall drapes using a special effect. Moreover, during the dictator Napaloni’s visit to Tomainia (Napaloni is a version of Mussolini), Hynkel visits a barber shop with him, and together they engage in an unspoken competition to see who can elevate his chair the highest. Neither dictator wants to be looked down upon by the other. But of course, they look ridiculous as their chairs climb impossibly higher and higher. The barbershop scene plays on our sense that the egos of dictators must be fairly fragile; it also asserts that the lengths they will go to to emerge victorious in both tremendous political campaigns and petty interpersonal squabbles are so ludicrous as to feel unreal.

The Great Dictator, however, has a decidedly serious and dark side. We know that the oppression inflicted upon the Jewish characters in this movie is all too reminiscent of real life: the thuggish assaults on businesses, the attacks on Jews in the street, the terrifying nighttime raids. These are present in the movie and, when intercut with the comedy scenes, are decidedly chilling—awful echoes of what people were actually experiencing. And yet what happens to the Jews in this movie can still seem rather soft in comparison with what actually happened to residents of the ghettos, prisoners of the concentration camps, and victims of the horrific death camps established in the German empire and its conquered lands. We know, for example, that Nazis, unlike Schultz, were not routinely in the habit of sparing whole neighborhoods from storm trooper torture because of fond memories of friendships forged in the Great War. Those alliances were all too easily and readily forfeited when the promise of advancement in the Nazi state presented itself and when the ugly specter of racialist hatred reared its head stridently among the Volk.

The sometimes soft nature of the film’s depiction of anti-Semitism extends to scenes with Hynkel where he discusses the success or failure of some of his political strategies. For example, on several occasions we hear him discussing the task of appeasing factory workers and the problem of the food shortage. His minister Garbitsch (a stand-in for Joseph Goebbels) recommends increasing anti-Semitic activities as a way of controlling the people, and Hynkel acquiesces. But the implication in these scenes is that Hynkel is in private rather detached from his anti-Semitic mission and is using his platform of hatred mainly as a means of controlling people. While the Nazi regime did use anti-Semitism as a way of distracting people from its own failings, it is also hard to conceive of anti-Semitism as incidental to the German fascists. Perhaps the true and rabid implementation of Nazi hatred was not as clear to Chaplin at the time. After the war he admitted that when he made The Great Dictator, he had no idea that the persecution of the Jews was as wide-ranging and appalling as it was, and even stated that had he known the true state of affairs, he would not have made the film.

It would have been a great shame had he not made The Great Dictator, because it is brave, thrilling, and inspiring, a terrific example of the kind of political criticism that is possible even in dark times of upheaval and worldwide turmoil. For the most part, the movie lives up to this praise. In one scene, however, The Great Dictator falters, as Roger Ebert and others have pointed out in their reviews: during the final scene where the barber-as-Hynkel addresses the nation and calls upon his people to be kind to each other. Ebert speculates that Chaplin might not have made the movie without that speech; it clearly meant a great deal to the actor, who not only wrote it but also devotes many minutes to its impassioned delivery. But the speech is so out of step with what happens throughout the rest of the movie, so earnest in tone and strident in its language, that it seems like a bit of propaganda inserted in an otherwise biting comedy. The response to the speech also seems implausible. We see crowds of Tomainians cheering in reaction. Do we really believe that they turned out in thousands and packed themselves into massive fields to hear their combative leader issue a speech on peace and love? With this conclusion, the movie sells out the often dark details that it includes in other scenes to create something that is unfortunately tidy and weirdly upbeat.

On a final note, I draw your attention to the use of the word “great” in this movie’s title. On the one hand, the title The Great Dictator indicates to us who the movie is about—that dictator, the famous one, the one you know. But at the same time, using the same words, we see how the movie also calls that greatness into question. It uses “great” in implicit scare quotes to indicate a greatness that is questionable, a prowess and reputation that seem both overinflated and ridiculous after we have finished watching the film. Consider in comparison the less contemplative The Great Ziegfeld (1936), which does not use its appellation with nearly as much care. The Great Dictator shows us what an accomplished movie can do: in a few words it can both assert what we already know about someone and demolish our understanding of that thing or person. That is to say, The Great Dictator is accomplished in terms of the boldness of the broad story it tells and in the finer details of how it presents it. It is a model political satire.

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