Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) is one of my favorite films of all time. This has little to do with the distinction of being his first full-fledged “talkie,” and more to do with its audacity in having the gall to satirize Adolph Hitler during his rise to power. The film came about a year after the start of WWII, and a year before the Pearl Harbor attack, when the U.S. finally deigned to dirty its hands in the matter. But production started before all that in 1938, the year that Germany annexed Austria. This was a year before the start of WWII and during a period when American censors and businessman were still either defending Hitler, or at least adamantly insisting that nobody piss him off. Even United Artists, the production company that Chaplin co-founded, urged him to avoid the subject, worried about Hays Code censors and the possibility that the film would never be allowed in theaters.
Chaplin refused to budge, and self-financed the film. He had firsthand accounts from German friends of the growing mistreatment of the Jews. He had seen Leni Reifenstahl’s terrifying Nazi propaganda piece, Triumph of the Will (1935). Antisemitism was on the rise in the United States, and the risk of emulating Germany’s descent into fascism was at an all time high. Chaplin insisted that “Hitler must be laughed at.” Of course, he was right. In the middle of its insane 559 day shoot, France was occupied and Chaplin recounts, “Our New York office was wiring frantically; ‘Hurry up with your film, everyone is waiting for it!'”
This wasn’t the first time Chaplin used comedy to highlight social tragedy, He’d kicked Kaiser Wilhelm in the rear in WWI comedy Shoulder Arms (1918), and Modern Times (1936) famously criticized Ford for turning men into cogs. But The Great Dictator may have been his most daring satire. The film was read as a call for the United States to join the war, but what he truly asks is that we “fight for a new world – a decent world.” He pleas for brotherhood, and an end to “greed, hate, and intolerance”. In the film, even the warriors on the side of “good” are depicted as bumbling and misguided. An entire comedy bit is set around the foolhardy “selection by fate” of a warrior to suicide bomb Adenoid Hynkel’s headquarters.
Just as important as Chaplin’s criticism of the Fuhrer is his contrast of Jewish life in the growing state of fascism. He uses a silly amnesia plot point to drop his Jewish barber character right in the heat of the oppression without a clue. This allows him to play for laughs the audacity of a hated minority who demands to be treated like a human being with civil rights.
Chaplin also builds empathy by diving into the mindset of the Jews during the time. They have serious conversations in which they discuss whether they should leave their homes, or wait for the silliness to all blow over. Surely it couldn’t get any worse than it already is. But the film follows the Jewish barber all the way to the concentration camps. The U.S. would only later find out the full extent of the horrors of the holocaust, and Chaplin said that he would not have been able to make The Great Dictator if he had known. He even considered halting the project once WWII had broken out, not sure if it was a laughing matter anymore.
What he did do was re-write and re-structure the film until it felt appropriately dire. Comedy was foiled by intense drama. A scene where the barber is nearly hung was added. Chaplin completely re-wrote and re-filmed what was originally a silly ending with soldiers throwing down their weapons and dancing in the streets. In its place, the barber, mistaken as Hynkel, gets up on a stage to address the troops and the recently conquered nation of “Osterlich”. But it’s Chaplin that speaks directly into the camera and begs of the world, “do not despair.”
Critics at the time pointed at Chaplin’s speech as an “inartistic” choice. I see it as the culmination of his career to that point, and perhaps both the boldest and truest act of celebrity politics of all time. In addition to two years of his life, he put his considerable fortune and reputation on the line. He built a film that relied on the love of his Tramp persona to inspire love for the oppressed Jews in Europe. He gave the Tramp a voice for the first time so that they could have a voice. And he showed the world his own voice, so that he could combat Hitler’s; so they could hear his earnest plea, and contrast that to the furious hatred of a madman.
Not all of The Great Dictator works. Straight drama and sound are clearly not Chaplin’s forte, which results in moments of unnecessary repetition, awkward pacing, and stilted or overplayed exposition. With the exception of Jack Oakie (aping Benito Mussolini) the rest of the cast are clearly nowhere near Chaplin’s league. Then Chaplin’s wife, Paulette Goddard, in particular, overacted the shit out of this movie. But all these flaws pale in comparison to the comedic genius on display. One might argue that Chaplin’s nonsense interpretation of Hitler’s speeches were an infantile mockery of the German language, but the mockery never extends past Hynkel’s ridiculous stage presence or overdramatic fits of rage. He’s not mocking the language, but the nonsense of Hitler’s sentiments. Chaplin even makes sure not to cast the whole of the non-Jewish German people as monsters. Schultz, a high ranking officer in the “Tomainion” military, may be a bit of a pansy, but he stands as a role model as an outsider who stands up for the oppressed.
Some argue that it is in poor taste to laugh at tragedy, but sometimes there’s nothing else one can do to negate the bite and terror of life’s horrors. Chaplin was an unquestioned genius of both filmmaking and comedy, but he was never more impressive than when he weaved in and out of the hardships of life, finding the humor in between the gaps. The Great Dictator did what it was meant to do, and with some of the most challenging material imaginable. For those who were fighting him, it took Hitler down a notch, and was a rallying cry for hope:
…to free the world… to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! In the name of democracy, let us all unite!
TOP 25 is a series of Editorials about my 25 favorite films of all time. Check out my full list here.