The Great Dictator Review; by Charlie Chaplin

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In 1940 the Comedy Genius Charlie Chaplin made his first and only movie with sound, his previous Little Rascal films were silent. It’s also the first film review that I’ve made for the Green Rover, so that’s something.

Now I’m not going to sugar code it, I fucking love this movie. It’s a great Comedic Drama with hints of tragedy throughout. However it does have plenty of flaws which I will discuss later on. But first we have to put the film in Context.

During the rise of Nazism many Jews were forced to flee Europe in fear of their lives, many of them fled to places such as Britain and America. Many of these Jews were film makers in the German Expressionism movement, one of the most influential movements in early cinema. So of course with the fresh intake of talent, Hollywood welcomed these refugees with open arms…so long as they never mentioned the fact that they were Jewish to the American public.

See, it’s important to understand that Germany wasn’t just a blip of Antisemitism in a long History of peace and tolerance, but rather a symptom of years upon years of bigotry. If you’ve read my reviews on writers such as Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway you can clearly see that the passive Antisemitism shows us that the Holocaust wasn’t just a freak accident, but rather an inevitability.

The world was in a state of Hell. Many nations were still recovering from the calamity that was the first world war (then known as “The Great War“) and on top of that the Global Economy had just gone through the Great Depression, meaning many people across the world were living in severe poverty. Many people were unemployed, particularly angry young men- and there’s nothing as dangerous to society as angry young men.

So in the midst of this perfect storm of absolute cluster-fuckery, Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany and decided he would usher in a new Great Empire, the Third Reich.

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So with the rise of Nazi Germany, which by 1940 had already invaded several European Nations and was currently bombing the shit out of Britain- America was still hesitant about going to war. Many film producers, particularly those who were Jewish, were afraid of criticizing Hitler in fear that he would retaliate against the Jewish Europeans with even more ferocity.

Others however were quite sympathetic to Hitler, In the 1930s, MGM’s Louis B. Meyer had consulted with German authorities and had given them veto power over some films’ contents in order to ensure easy access to the German film market.

On top of that the American people, despite having a dislike of Nazism, were remarkably antisemitic- even after World War Two. That’s why Frank Sinatra made “The House I live In” a short film made to oppose Antisemitism and racial prejudice at the end of World War II, it received an Honorary Academy Award and a special Golden Globe award in 1946.

So Charlie Chaplin already had up to 100 silent films already under his belt, he was world famous. Everyone loved him- Hell, even Hitler liked him. But hearing the horrors his Jewish friends had endured in Europe infuriated him, so he decided to watch one of Hitler’s propaganda films-.

According to Jürgen Trimborn’s biography of Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, both Chaplin and French filmmaker René Clair viewed Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” together at a showing at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Filmmaker Luis Buñuel reports that Clair was horrified by the power of the film, crying out that this should never be shown or the West was lost.

Chaplin, on the other hand, laughed uproariously at the film- because he found the thing so fucking stupid that he thought “Ok, I definitely have to make a movie about this guy” in fact he used it to inspire many elements of The Great Dictator, and by repeatedly viewing this film, Chaplin could closely mimic Hitler’s mannerisms.

It also helped that both men sported the Toothbrush moustache. Some believe that Hitler sported the mustache because he was a fan of Chaplin, however other have argued that Hitler shaved it that way when he was a soldier in World War I in order to get a good seal on his gas mask.

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In the period when Hitler and his Nazi Party rose to prominence, Chaplin was becoming internationally popular. He was mobbed by fans on a 1931 trip to Berlin, which annoyed the Nazis. Resenting his style of comedy, they published a book titled The Jews Are Looking at You (1934), describing the comedian as “a disgusting Jewish acrobat” of course Chaplin wasn’t Jewish, he was just an Anti-Fascist- which in Hitler’s view was the same thing. Ivor Montagu, a close friend of Chaplin, relates that he sent the comedian a copy of the book and always believed that Chaplin decided to retaliate with making Dictator.

Chaplin funded the film himself, he even had the support of President Roosevelt- who promised that all their allies would not ban the film. The film took roughly a year to film, it was released in 1940. It’s incredibly funny, especially since it’s not particularly vulgar. It’s clean, some would say even family friendly.

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The film opens up with a humorous subtitle that says “Note; Any resemblance between Hynkel the Dictator and the Jewish Barber is purely coincidental” it’s worth noting that in the film Chaplin plays both the Fascist Dictator and the Clumsy Jewish Protagonist.

The first scene of the film involves a Battle in the first World War, in which the Jewish Barber is a soldier in the army. It’s your typical slapstick comedy. The soundtrack isn’t particularly great. Outside of large explosions, dialogue or a few sound effects- the sound in the film isn’t very good. I mean there’s no footsteps, door sounds, room ambiance- all the stuff we have today in film.

But to be fair maybe sound effects had yet to be perfected in Hollywood so it’s quite a weak criticism. Especially since this is Chaplin’s first film with sound so it’s undoubtedly not going to be perfect.

But anyway, the Jewish Barber is in a plane crash and he receives amnesia- so he’s stuck in a Hospital for the next twenty years and is eventually released, completely oblivious that his country has become a fascist state. That’s where the humor comes from, the sheer of ignorance of a nice man surrounded by people who despise him for no logical reason.

The Barber gets in a lot of trouble at home, in fact he almost get’s lynched by a group of Nazis. But a Nazi Lieutenant stops them, this lieutenant is coincidentally a man that the barber saved during the War; Schultz. The fact that his savior is Jewish shakes Schultz’ core belief system and he eventually rejects his Nazi beliefs.

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The first scene of the Dictator known as Hynkel is quite hilarious. He’s giving one of his heated speeches and Chaplin is pretending to speak German- but it’s actually just gibberish. It’s just a mockery of Hitler’s speech patterns and general mannerisms. He’s of course a very Antisemitic character, but Chaplin does a great job at highlighting just how much of a royal fuck up he is.

I mean there’s a scene in the film where his advisers implore the Dictator to fix the factories or else everyone’s going to fault him with fucking up the economy, but Hynkel is just like “…Nah, lets just blame the Jews” it’s safe to say he’s not a Genius.

The surprising thing about this film is not only is it funny, but often times it’s incredibly sad. Like when the Jewish characters talk about the decline in their country or the fears that they’ll have to flee for their safety. One of the most heartbreaking scenes is when the Nazis come for the barber and he escapes, but he’s forced to watch from the rooftops as the Nazis burn his barbershop to the ground.

The film has a sense of awareness to it. In a few scenes you can flagrantly see lines of dialogue that are very on the nose, it’s the equivalent of the actor looking down the camera and saying “Nazis are Bad” which is always kind of difficult to do with satire. Satire is supposed to be clever, not blatantly obvious. But the entire film is a massive “Fuck You” to Hitler so the on the nose satire is a little more ballsy than anything else.

There’s a scene in which Schultz confronts the Dictator by saying something like “You will ultimately fail because your mission depends on the hatred of others” and Chaplin does go out of his way to showcase how much of a repulsive scumbag Hynkel is, even going so far as to try and force himself on his secretary. But of course the best part of the film regarding the Dictator was of course the rivalry between the other Dictator Benzino Napaloni, Dictator of Bacteria, a parody of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

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Benzino is played by Jack Oakie, he plays this very…Italian Caricature of the Fascist Dictator. There was a pissing contest between Hitler and Mussolini and Chaplin satirized it perfectly.

The only real complaint I have about the film is the structure. See the film starts out with the barber in world war one, then we flash forward to WW2 where Hynkel is giving a speech, then cut to the Barber being released from hospital- oblivious to the rise in Fascism- in which we see him return home to be confronted by Nazis, but he’s temporarily saved by his Neighbor/Love Interest and later his friend Lieutenant Shultz, then we cut to the Dictator doing…well, Dictator things, from there on it’s a back and forth of the two men’s lives until the Barber is captured and sent to a Concentration camp and the Hynkel has a pissing contest with Mussolini.

You see, it’a  little disjointed- it’s just a bunch of things that randomly happen instead of a linear plot in which one action triggers a reaction which triggers another reaction, and so forth. I think the film would have greatly benefited from focusing more on the Barber’s Amnesia- like his complete and utter bewilderment at Fascism and the ludicrous nature of bigotry that surrounds him.

I also would have liked to see a scene with the Dictator and the Barber, but that may not have been physically possible to do at the time.

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Despite a few flaws I really enjoyed the film. I liked the Neighbor/Romantic Interest called Hannah (played by Paulette Goddard, who was actually Jewish) I really liked her character. And the rest of the cast was fantastic. Particularly the older people, who brought a lot of levity to the film.

The film does a great job of poking fun at Nazis but also presents the serious and depressing thought that Fascism is a legitimate threat that we must be cautious against. That we mustn’t tolerate it and we must avoid it’s allure at all costs.

When it was released the film was quite successful. People liked Chaplin beforehand and the Allies considered it an excellent piece of propaganda. Chaplin sent a copy of the film to Hitler, which he did in fact watch…Twice.

Hitler once had extolled Chaplin as one of the greatest performers of all time. There were rumors that Hitler was heartbroken to see Chaplin’s impersonation of him. In one key scene, Chaplin’s Hynkel character bursts into tears after his balloon globe pops. But according to a member of Hitler’s circle named Reinhard Spitzy, the Dictator found the film amusing.

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Charlie Chaplin later regretted the film, he’s on the record for saying that if he knew the severity of how the Jewish people were treated he would never have made a film making fun of the Nazis- he didn’t find Genocide funny. It’s an understandable concern, I mean watching the film now with Historical Context it’s quite difficult to take the fairly comfy Concentration Camps portrayed in the film seriously, since the real camps were literal hell holes.

Chaplin even got rid of his iconic mustache, just to distance himself from Hitler.

In his memoir “My Father, Charlie Chaplin”, Chaplin’s son Charlie Jr. described his father as being haunted by the similarities in background between him and Hitler; they were born four days apart in April 1889, and both had risen to their present heights from poverty. He wrote:

“Their destinies were poles apart. One was to make millions weep, while the other was to set the whole world laughing. Dad could never think of Hitler without a shudder, half of horror, half of fascination. ‘Just think’, he would say uneasily, ‘he’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.'”

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The film isn’t perfect, I don’t think anyone would claim that. The sound is off and the story can be disjointed at times- but as a Comedy it serves it’s purpose and as a Satire it’s practically a masterpiece. Chaplin saw the seriousness in the subject matter he was parodying, when he felt deterred about making the film- the President had to step in to push him along with a note that simply said “Make this Movie” so he did.

The final scene was originally supposed to a song and dance, but Chaplin decided to turn it into a monologue instead. In my mind it’s one of the greatest speeches ever made, here it is;

“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.

We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed.

We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.

The airplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.

To those who can hear me, I say, do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.

Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you, enslave you; who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines, you are not cattle, you are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural. Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!

In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke, it is written that the kingdom of God is within man, not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power. Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security.

By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will! Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfill that promise. Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! 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!”

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It’s a great speech, just ignore the question about why a Jewish Barber would know a line from the New Testament.

4 comments

  1. I recently saw this film for the first time. I thought it was courageous and necessary, but artistically lacking. Like you said, the time shifts were confusing, and the concentration camp depictions were, let’s just say, naive. I also thought the final speech was preachy and heavy-handed. There were one or two uncomfortable scenes where Goddard tries to urge her neighbors to resist and fight back. I got the impression Chaplin was making a statement here. But how does a bird fight back while being held in the jaws of a lion? All that being said, it was courageous of Chaplin to make this film, and he only had so much knowledge of what was happening over there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not too sure if Chaplin had any experience with writing or directing in his previous films, but I think the disjointed narrative was because he was used to the traditional slaptsick route. He wasn’t used to performing a linear plot but rather a few funny scenes wrapped up together

      Like

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