The Great Dictator

A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #565: Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.

Not Chaplin’s greatest work, but certainly a strong propaganda film. What struck me most is the ignorance with which the prison camps and Jewish ghettos are betrayed. There are some obvious instances early in the film where it seems as if Chaplin hasn’t quite figured out that he’s making a talkie, but once he gets that under control the film ping-pongs back and forth between Chaplin iconography and effeminate Hitler-mocking. Chaplin had great fun with names. Tomania (Ptomaine) for Allemania and Bacteria for Italia. Herrs Herring & Garbage, Phooey Adenoid Hynkel and Benzino Napaloni.

Chaplin did well to emulate the Riefenstyle of Triumph of the Will when Hynkel/Hitler is onstage and balances it with a more recognizably Chaplin style in the Ghetto scenes, but it remains hard to watch this film and take it seriously knowing what we know now about Nazi atrocity. Chaplin-style comedy is well-suited to making buffoons of the Nazis, and in 1940 it still made sense to treat them as a laughable enemy rather than a vicious one. Despite these difficulties with hindsight, the final speech, where a Jewish barber inverts the message of the Double Cross party, is more triumphantly inspiring than a thousand Riefenstahl films. Yet for all its cleverness, the film seems now most notable for its appalling innocence.