The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin, 1940)

A comedy to wake up the world

Having seen my fair share of Laurel & Hardy, I thought I knew the extent of the humor of the great slapstick artists from the black and white movie era. Worse, I believed comedy in general was an evolving art, one that got sharper and wittier as time moves to modern eras. The progression of standup comics and Dutch cabaret performers over the decades seemed to confirm it. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator has taught me a lesson, however, one I intend to profit by.

Have I been living in a dream? Chaplin’s masterpiece of comedy is sharper than most anything else I’ve seen. His impersonation of Adolf Hitler, amusingly named ‘Adenoid Hynkel’, is grotesquely funny and equaled perhaps only by John Cleese in a classic Monty Python sketch where a suspicious character named ‘Mr. Hilter’ is spotted taking refuge in a B&B in old Blighty.

The Great Dictator effortlessly switches between biting satire and well-crafted physical comedy. One moment Hynkel is shouting ‘wienerschnitzel, blitzkrieg!’ rhetoric before a crowd – raising every hair on your body as you realize both the absurdity and the authenticity – then suddenly one of the microphones bends away from the man, wilting by the speech. These broad comedic strokes prefigure the Zuckers’ The Naked Gun series, with its leave-no-joke-unmade approach, by almost fifty years.

The story is quite simple: Chaplin plays a double role as both the dictator of the fictitious state of Tomania and a lowly Jewish barber in one of its ghettos. The barber fought in the First World War and got a knock on the head, thereby missing the events that lead to Hynkel’s rise to power. It’s perhaps surprising that it takes until the very end of the film before the expected switcharoo finally occurs and the barber is mistaken for the tyrant. It’s not a terribly important plot – the main course are the various scenes in which Chaplin gets the most out of his characters. Hynkel’s famous dance with the world, the visit by Bacteria’s dictator Napaloni (modeled after Italy’s Mussolini), the barber shaving a man to the tune of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5.

The political insightfulness of this film is nigh unimaginable. How could a comedy feature released in 1940 (but started in 1937!) by the well-loved Charlie Chaplin capture the future zeitgeist so accurately? The Second World War had just broken out, but already Chaplin is incorporating Hitler’s plans for world domination, the Jewish ghettos and concentration camps into the story – camps that supposedly came as a shocker to many after the war. What crucial perceptiveness on the movie’s part. As a political statement, the importance of The Great Dictator is hard to overestimate.

Of note is that Hitler, who had called Chaplin “the greatest actor alive”, banned this film for obvious reasons. When curiosity got the better of him he smuggled a copy into his empire through Portugal. He viewed the film twice, but unfortunately his reaction was not recorded. Chaplin later stated that he would have given anything to know what the real, not-so-great dictator thought of his film, but also that he wouldn’t have made it had he known beforehand the true genocidal intentions of the Nazis. It’s not always pleasant when life truly imitates art.

Beyond its qualities as a satire, the film is funnier and far more daring in its comedy than most modern attempts. It shows that you can take the high road with comedy and still get all the laughs. Bending over backwards to incorporate the meanest obsessions of the lowest end of the crowd (gross-out moments, crude sexual displays and random stupidity) is something most genre films do nowadays and they are the poorer for it.

The Great Dictator has pulled a spectacular trick on me: it shook me out of a delusion that I treasured that people are funnier today than they were yesterday. It seems that after 72 years, Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece can still teach and change its audience. Sometimes it takes a comedian to show the world its true face.

Roderick Leeuwenhart




4 comments:

  1. Great, great movie! It also felt very out of place to me: knowing what Hitler really did, makes making fun of him like this just incredibly bad taste. Except that, of course, this was not known yet at the time, which makes watching this movie such a remarkable combination of laughter and disgust.

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    1. I don't know if I agree that it's bad taste to parody Hitler or any murdering despot. Perhaps it's because it's been done so many times by now (I mentioned Monty Python, but there's also the brilliant The Producers by Mel Brooks that features a musical routine around the song "Springtime for Hitler in Germany"), that I've been inoculated against feelings of outrage.

      But also from a larger angle, since The Great Dictator is clearly making fun of Hitler, not of his victims, it doesn't feel wrong. If you want conflicting feelings, try watching Der Untergang without gaining a modicum of sympathy for the man. Holy cow, that movie does something truly bizarre with that.

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    2. Yeah, you're right that the real issues arise when he is turned into a man, instead of when he is made fun of like here. There is an actual academic dispute about whether Hitler was a man, or a historical anomaly...

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    3. That is just so bizarre. A 'historical anomaly'? The problem is that when you put people on a pedestal, either as gods or demons, they get this air of untouchability, and only then does it become shocking to reference them (Voldemort!) or joke about them (Hitler!).

      I think the passage of time here in incredibly important. If WW2 was only ten years past, it would be in bad taste to joke about anything of it. But it's been at least two generations since. In a few more generations we'll be completely emotionless about Hitler, just like we are about, say, the duke of Alva today.

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