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.