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,


  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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