More than any other Nazi-related movie, The Great Dictator (1941) confuses me the most. As much as we can, we wrap our minds around the phenomenon of the Holocaust with the institutionalization, the submission of officers to the chain of command, mass hypnosis through total censorship, and a striking level of self-imposed ignorance which allowed for something dramatically evil. I can’t imagine it, but I can accept the given facts. Then I see The Great Dictator, which began shooting in September 1939, the same month Hitler invaded Poland, and speaks with absolute clarity and conviction of all the horrors we know were happening and would happen. By the time of the film’s release, Germany had invaded Belgium and France in the west and Romania in the east, Jews were wearing stars, put into ghettos and concentration camps. Two months after The Great Dictator was released in the United States, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The film was incredibly popular both in the US and UK while it was banned (obviously) in many parts of Europe. Would that Chaplin edited the film sooner.
The Phooey, Adenoid Hynkel (Charles Chaplin), rules over Tomania with an iron will under the flag of the Double Cross, riling up the crowds with jingoism and anti-Semitism. His plans for world domination are set and with the help of his propagandist Heir Garbitsch (Henry Daniell) and war minister Heir Herring (Billy Gilbert), it will come about piece by piece, country by country, conquest by conquest. Meanwhile, a Jewish barber (Chaplin) who had served in the military for Tomania in World War I, has come back to his barber shop after years as an amnesiac in a military hospital. Things have changed what with the ghettoization of his neighborhood and gangs of storm troopers roaming the streets painting “JEW” on windows and terrorizing the locals. He fights back, as any man would (without years of slow manipulation), and wins the heart of the fiery Hannah (Paulette Goddard). But soon enough, the crackdown on the Jewish people pushes forward and the gears of war grind inevitably onwards. Things are eventually made impossible for the Barber and Hynkel has to deal with competing dictator Napaloni (Jack Oakie), the Dictator of Bacteria (it really should have been Bacilli).
The real power of the movie is in its context and prescience and viewing it otherwise is difficult. Much of the film is the purest propaganda with Chaplin’s methods feeling slightly disturbing in the final moments. The Great Dictator is not a strict comedy for this reason. Many moments are purely dramatic and very familiar to a modern viewer. But there is comedy of the sort you will recognize from other Chaplin films (though The Great Dictator does have audible dialogue). The Barber is a slightly higher paid version of The Tramp, with big shoes and a tiny jacket. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the verbal wit in the dialogue (credited to Chaplin). Much of the film feels like a more regimented version of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933) in both the verbal sparring, though the characters are never light hearted, and the depiction of World War I.
While I felt engaged and entertained by The Great Dictator, I do feel like it lacks something. As I mentioned, Duck Soup came out six years before Chaplin began production and His Girl Friday (1940) is roughly contemporary. [His Girl Friday, for those unenlightened by the reference, is one of the sharpest verbal comedies of all time with a cynical eye that would make Billy Wilder proud.] What I’m saying is that the medium of film was mature enough to handle the subject better than Chaplin did in this movie. The final speech is like something out of Frank Capra but without the hour-long foundation laid to justify the optimism. It’s the plot and the pacing of The Great Dictator that feels like it’s from another era. Bit comic set pieces stand out, like Chaplin intercut scenes from his old silent movies. They fit narratively, but clash with the serious tone.
Perhaps it is I who brought the tone with me. Like I said, the film and my understanding of when it was made caused me a great deal of confusion. As someone who has lived a life of incredible good fortune, it is a struggle that will almost certainly go unresolved. How can it be that I can better understand the psychotic mania of a generation of actual or complicit butchers than the people who awaited their own slaughter? Watching this movie is like watching a horror movie, “Don’t go in there, he’s behind you! Run!” In fairness (to the millions of victims of the most epicly terrible crime ever committed), by the time The Great Dictator was released, the trap had sprung and any remnant of choice had gone. But 1939-41 was so close that it forces the question. How could they have ever believed things would de-escalate to livable conditions?
The Great Dictator is nothing if not ambitious. One scene stands out in particular where Chaplin choreographed an entire dance between Hynkel and a balloon globe to the beautiful prelude to Lohengrin. After watching Beauty and the Beast (1946), I couldn’t help but lust for an alternative universe where Chaplin used slow motion to create the scene he so clearly wanted. He does well enough with what he had. The beginning, which covers a large battle in World War I, is work on an impressive scale. And I’ve already mentioned Chaplin’s use of sound and dialogue (new-ish for him) which are fully realized. And that Prelude…so good and using the music of a famous anti-Semite in an anti-Nazi movie is so deliciously ironic.
Everyone should have a copy of The Great Dictator from the Criterion Collection. Its special features include a 2001 documentary called The Tramp and the Dictator about Chaplin and Hitler’s lives and the production of this film. Excellent. According to the documentary, Chaplin said he would not have made the film if he knew the full extent of Hitler’s crimes. This strikes me as insanity. If given the fantasy of foreknowledge, mine would be to know the Nazi’s crimes in 1932 so that I’d have enough time to pit comedy against Hitler. So, while this may not be the work of a complete comic hero and while I think that there is a fair amount of potential left untapped, that doesn’t diminish the film that was made. Why I wasn’t shown this film in history class, I do not know.