Charles Chaplin and Adolf Hitler were both born during the same week of April, 1889. Both men experienced extreme poverty during their youth, and both had an affinity for art—Chaplin for vaudevillian performance and Hitler for painting. Both loved film and the music of Richard Wagner. And both would go on to become the most popular celebrity figures of their time, world-renowned for the ability to unite people: Chaplin through his humor and messages of hope, and Hitler through his anti-semitic messages of nationalism and hate.
In 1940, Chaplin would launch a direct statement of hope against Hitler’s message of hate with the film The Great Dictator, in which Chaplin played the dual roles of a little Tramp-esque Jewish barber and the tyrannical dictator Hynkel. There is an amazing parallel here between not just the two characters of the film, but between Chaplin and Hitler himself. As Chaplin himself once remarked to his son, “he’s the madman, I’m the comic; but it could have been the other way around.”
Chaplin was fascinated by this parallel—how could fate have twisted two men in such opposite directions? How could one man hear a utopia of individual potential in Wagner’s music, and another hear a dystopia of industrial fortitude? How can a man hold such different potentials, to become either a barber or a dictator, a comedian or a villain…?
Identity is a confusing parallel—as it is in the film itself. Even during the final scene, when the simple barber is confused for the great dictator, it’s Chaplin himself, real and bare [and talking for the first time on screen] who steps forward to deliver the big speech. Who then really is the “great” dictator here?
It was a question that was nearly never raised, as the film itself would take years to be released due to controversy as well as hesitation on the part of Chaplin.
After all, no one in Hollywood was talking about the rise of this powerful fascist leader in Germany; America, after all, was at peace with the nation, with Henry Ford even supporting Hitler’s rise with pro-Nazism rhetoric. So the idea of an artist coming out against both Hitler and Mussolini was not something Hollywood embraced; why poke the hornet’s nest, after all?
During production, Chaplin almost pulled the plug on the film entirely when he learned of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, suggesting that the man was far too monstrous to be made into a joke. A letter from President Roosevelt to Chaplin urging him to continue on with the movie kept the film on track, and it was released to American theaters in 1940. It was immediately banned in occupied Europe and Latin America.
Besides this fantastic cultural context, of a celebrity artist actively and directly speaking out against a powerful tyrant, the movie is an essential piece of cinema for other reasons.
It was Charles Chaplin’s first “talkie” after making his name in silent cinema, and it was certainly his most conventional narrative film up to that point. Charles Chaplin had always been a fantastic comedian, but with his films, he was allowed to grow as a filmmaker as well.
Where he had started with episodic shorts, he had evolved into crafting longer episodic films, such as City Lights and Modern Times, and with Dictator, he makes an episodic narrative—the film parallels the lives of its two characters through set pieces and gags, but it ties everything together in a narrative style that was pretty advanced for Chaplin.
This episodic format works because it structures Chaplin’s classic brand of comedy well. Whenever I think of the film, there are several pieces that come to mind and immediately make me smile: Hynkel’s first acidic speech to the crowds, the barber’s ballet down the street when he is knocked silly by a frying pan, the two dictators [Chaplin and Jack Oakie as Napaloni] trying to gain the literal upper-hand on each other in barber’s chairs, the insanity of giving someone a straight razor shave in sync with the music of Brahms.
Music also plays an important role later in the film when Hynkel, fantasizing about being the brunette leader of an all-blonde Aryan race, performs an oddly beautiful dance with an inflated globe set to Wagner’s prelude to Lohengrin. It manages, in one scene, to encapsulate everything I personally love about Chaplin’s films all at once: it is at once beautiful and absurd, with a frightening warning emanating from its core. It reduces everything down to its absurdity, but in doing so, somehow manages to give it all a deeper meaning. I don’t how the hell he did it, but it worked.
And The Great Dictator, by all accounts, should not work as a successful movie. Chaplin himself was afraid of how a comedy about a real figure promoting real pain in the world would play out - but play out it did. The movie did incredibly well both in pre-wartime America and wartime England. The reason is because of Chaplin’s incredible ability to balance, like a vaudevillian tightrope walker, the elements of comedy, politics, and satire. Not only was it important then, but it is almost impossible not to see the parallels now.
In the film, dictator Hynkel is temperamental, short-sighted, and easily influenced by his cabinet. He hates the press, instead filtering his messages through state-sponsored propaganda. He makes flash decisions, flip-flopping between philosophies with life-altering impact for his nation’s people, based on whims and frustrations. His Secretary of the Interior and Minister of Propaganda, Garbitsch [pronounced “garbage,” of course] uses flattery to bend the leader’s ear towards his own aims and agendas, twisting leadership into a nationalistic dystopia.
Does this entire situation not seem at all familiar today? Are we not seeing the brutes rise to power on the promise of things they will never fulfill? Are we not seeing the powerful free themselves while enslaving others? This is what Chaplin spoke of in his final speech from 1940, but how has it changed since then? Isn’t this absurdity on display daily across our own television sets and newspapers?
In fact, the one place it seems to be missing from is the very place Chaplin put it originally: our cinemas.
So the question for me becomes: where the fuck are the artists today? Who is out there making a film of hope for us now? Who is out there making the absurd palatable and promoting the light at the end of the very dark tunnel? Shit, man—where’s our Chaplin?
Charlie Chaplin did not release his film thinking that it would change everything—he just wanted people to see absurdity for what it was and embrace the possibility of hope. It worked. In fact, Chaplin even hoped to get the film over to his fellow cinema and Wagner-loving celebrity, but no reports of Chaplin’s copy of The Great Dictator ever arriving in Hitler’s enclave exist.
Adolf Hitler, however, did make frequent orders of films to watch privately even if they were banned publicly and loved Hollywood comedies. When the register of films he had screened was finally discovered, it is of note that The Great Dictator was one of those films he had ordered.
For more on The Great Dictator, here is what we'll have this week:
- An essay on the film's [and Chaplin's] relationship to language
- Filmography of Chaplin's Mutual Shorts
- Scene analysis of the centerpiece "Dance with the World"
- Related Review of Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 Nazi comedy To Be or Not to Be
- And more!