Charlie Chaplin’s most daring film takes place in a fictionalized version of Germany called Tomainia. In a prologue set in 1918, years before Adenoid Hynkel takes power, a bewildered Jewish Barber is thrown into WWI and suffers a severe injury that keeps him in hospital until WWII. Chaplin plays the Barber and, of course, the dictator, giving credence to the fact that the opening note may be a lighthearted wink to the audience who, in 1940, would recognize Chaplin anywhere. But The Great Dictator is an unusual comedy, something more sinister for it satirizes one of the darkest memories of world history. The Barber escapes, eager to return to his beloved shop just as the Tomainian storm troopers begin severe persecution of the ghettos. The Barber meets Hannah, a Jewish girl, who assists in fending off the storm troopers. This is one of the many scenes that are laugh out funny but exist with an undercurrent of dread, panic, and sickness because the true events, 70 years later, fueled further by modern examples of bigotry, are no less painful. Perhaps because WWII exists so vividly in motion images the horrors will never fade.
The Great Dictator contrasts the experiences of Hynkel and the Barber during changing times; for the dictator, changes towards perfection; for the Barber, a disintegration of everything he understands.
The film’s most famous scenes give us a stark contrast to both of Chaplin’s characters, and stand as perhaps the greatest examples of Chaplin’s dedication to rehearsal and perfectionism—in short, to his craft. The first is the chilling, beautiful and bizarre dance Hynkel performs with a feather-light globe of the world. His Ministry of the Interior, Garbitsch, informs him that with their new plans Hynkel will become Emperor of the World, a thought that sends the ruthless dictator up the wall, literally. He dances to the music of Wagner, incidentally Hitler’s favorite composer. It is the opening to his Lohengrin, a light, airy but pretentious piece of music. Chaplin’s moves are narcissistic and bold, graceful but futile. In trying to juggle the world, cradle it, domineer it, Hynkel pops his globe and is left with a deflated, impotent piece of rubber. The Jewish Barber then shaves a man to Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5. Here Chaplin’s Barber is a cousin to his famous Tramp. The Barber lathers the man’s face, takes his blade, sharpens it, and with perfectly precise motions hits every note of Brahms’ innocent, frenetic music.
It is interesting that with all of Hynkel’s ambition, his contribution to the world ends with a deflated balloon—a waste for someone who, like Hitler, had the brilliance to muster the masses for a common goal. The simple Barber, with the mere shaving of a man, enriches the world with his craft. The choice of music, too, shows Chaplin as a Renaissance Man and as someone who, despite preferring silent films, was keen on using every element of sound to make his point: Hynkel is marked with heavy, pretentious music, the Barber with humane culture.
Chaplin’s craft belongs to an era of silent film comedy. In both sequences, silent except for the music, we can witness the skill and precision of Chaplin’s art. He was not improvisational as many might hope; someone who could simply step in front of a camera and command it. He rehearsed. The choreography, the timing to the music, is such that we know that music was prerecorded, and that Chaplin would go from beginning to end mastering every gesture, would perfect difficult tasks like spinning a ball on his fingertip, scaling a tabletop with grace, and memorizing not only the music, but the particular performance of the music so that his impact is striking. This is not something that can be achieved in post production. Like Fred Astaire, Chaplin is seen often in medium or long shot, and the camera simply stays on him and we see his performance with minimal cuts, and in the case of the shaving sequence, arguably more awe-inspiring, one continuous shot. Among other things it allows us to lament the loss of great talent when we view our contemporary movie comedians. Chaplin understood that moviemaking was not spontaneous but the result of dedication, obsession, and doing and doing again.
It is difficult to look at the realities of the Nazi’s activities, but Hitler himself, someone who was so serious and seemed to lack humility, is prone to satire. It is one of the purposes of art to critique the world, and the powerful who control it, and to create for the public a better world. Chaplin does all this, and that he managed to create his epic in 1940, in Hollywood, after a war and great depression, with political tensions high and politicians eager to prosecute anyone who would contradict their ideology, is a testament to his popularity and socio-political awareness. He often resembles Hitler perfectly, no more so than when wearing the double-cross trench coat, and his inflections and diction when speaking his Tomainian gibberish remind me of Hitler’s great speeches in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. That Chaplin is a great comedian only helps him further, but the scenes with the Jewish Barber in the Ghettos were not so funny. Yes they were, but I felt sick watching them. We know what went on there, what would happen if the Nazis arrested anyone for any reason, where they’d end up. I don’t think it was inappropriate for Chaplin to make this film. The subject should not be off limits. My great admiration from the director stems from the fact that his films are often sad. They’re filled with pathos and meaning and have relevance to our society. In The Great Dictator, there are numerous scenes of the people hiding in the Ghettos, afraid and angry. I could imagine the real life scenarios like this, and unlike in Chaplin’s film things would not turn out so well.
Much has been made of the film’s controversial ending. It was Chaplin’s Jewish Barber’s speech to the soldiers of Tomainia that got him a file at the FBI; the Barber, mistaken for Hinkel, is to make a speech about the recent invasion of Osterlich. While facing the podium, unlike Hinkel whose words were so brutish that they’d bend the microphones, the Barber pleads for peace, preaches against greed and intolerance, and offers all those listening an opportunity for change. This speech, some 6 minutes long, is a stark difference to the rest of the picture. I think it’s a great ending, something that caps Chaplin’s political satire and offers hope where in real life at that time there seemed very little.
I will say no more to add to these discussions. I’d rather examine the film’s beginning. I don’t think it works. It’s not funny and feels like a separate piece to the rest of the film. We see the Barber fighting in WWI, how he becomes injured. In fact this prologue serves the narrative later as here he befriends a soldier who will become prominent in Hinkel’s Tomainia, but the sequence feels more like a one-reeler Chaplin might have made early in his career. And indeed did make in the 1920s. The comedy is broad and general, the effects small and unprofessional, and it throws off the structure of the film. It also seems remarkably unprofessional, as if it was an afterthought thrown in after the rest of the picture was cut together. We don’t see Hinkel’s rise to power, and seeing the Barber’s, I feel, gets the film off to a slow start.
There is a reason Chaplin is considered the greatest screen comedian of the 20th Century. His films stood for something more than broad physical comedy. They have touching stories, and his images often contained gaiety and gravitas. With The Great Dictator, a boldly political work, he risked offending the dictators of the world when instead he could have made a film about Napoleon. At the time, many of Hitler’s “great” military accomplishments were still ahead of him, and the US had not officially entered the war, and Chaplin, sensing as much of the world probably did, what was about to happen, decided to do something about it.
Great Dictator, The (1940)
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Writer: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, and Jack Oakie
Runtime: 124 minutes