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.

4 thoughts on “The Great Dictator

  1. Good morning Adam,

    I would be kinder to Chaplin.

    He began filming of The Great Dictator as Germany invaded Poland and was still editing the final film as Germany waged Blitzkrieg in Western Europe.

    Chaplin is said to have laughed all the way through Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (still a masterful film for all its evil and I think of Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream as the best retelling) in part, I believe, because the British-born Chaplin shared a certain English attitude expressed by his countryman Eric Arthur Blair who wrote (as George Orwell):

    Why is the goose-step not used in England? There are, heaven knows, plenty of army officers who would be only too glad to introduce some such thing. It is not used because the people in the street would laugh. Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army.

    In 1939/1940 the rest of the world did not yet understand the full monstrosity of the Third Reich and many, including many Jews, clung to the fantasy (as many Americans do in 2012 when faced with the rhetoric of Willard Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan on abortion issues — they wouldn’t really imprison women who had abortions, would they?) that Hitler and the National Socialist Party didn’t really intend to do what they said, that was just crazy talk appealing to the whacko base.

    I still hold that the final speech ought to be watched again and again. Chaplin may not have been prescient, but he was damn close.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Jeff

  2. Thanks for the excellent comment, Jeff. I didn’t really think I was being unkind to Chaplin, he didn’t know – nor did anyone else – that Nazi Germany’s diabolical moral compass was legitimate.

    I’m going to track down the Spinrad book. Le Guin is tied for my favorite SF author with Gene Wolfe, so anything she feels the need to engage in at the level of your link is something I should read.

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