It's hard to believe what a misunderstood—and indeed, controversial—film The Great Dictator remains. Still too often written off as an uncinematic and hopelessly sentimental rendering of fascism on the brink of world war, Charlie Chaplin's scathing satiric masterpiece is actually looking better and better. While deeply of its moment (the most famous man of 1940 ridiculed by the second most famous man of 1940), the film finds, in the striking similarity between Chaplin and Adolph Hitler, an oddly timeless comparison of stardom and totalitarianism, mass entertainer and mass murderer, director and dictator. The margin of error in sending up anything as serious as Nazism or anti-Semitism could have been huge, and yet Chaplin found a deft balance where humor and horror somehow commingle. Indeed, this isn't a film for people who think the most profound response to the Holocaust is the shaking of their own heads at man's inhumanity to man. But who, in 1940 or in any time, was better qualified to critique a tyrant like Hitler than a man who himself held millions under his sway?
Conceptualized around Chaplin's own recognition of what was probably the greatest single example of trademark infringement in the 20th century (that of Adolph Hitler's pilfering of the Tramp's toothbrush mustache), The Great Dictator delves deeply into the dynamics of fascism. The 12-minute prologue that opens the film deliciously reimagines WWI in almost Three Stooges-like slapstick, showing the gobsmacking absurdity of a four-year conflict over arbitrary boundary lines that sacrificed much of Europe's male youth.
Chaplin opens with a sweeping, left-right tracking shot over a grid-like pattern of barbed wire and cross-shaped barricades, while anonymous soldiers scurry rat-like through a maze of trenches. Kubrick could have stuck it into Paths of Glory, and you wouldn't have noticed any difference. Of course, almost immediately you recognize Chaplin's unique gift of comic exaggeration: the phallic Big Bertha cannon and a swirling anti-aircraft battery that's like an out-of-control camera operator's crane. If Paths of Glory rings false because its chic veneer of cynicism covers an underlying strain of "let's all sing about our common humanity" feel-goodery like a gooey nougat, The Great Dictator unfolds in exactly the reverse. Throughout the film, huggable sentiments mask a darkly ironic, doomsaying heart. When the clueless Commander Schultz reminisces about his beloved wife back in Tomainia (while his plane is set to crash, no less), it's a bitter sendup of All Quiet on the Western Front-style portrayals of flowery innocence crushed by warfare: "How she loves daffodils. She would never cut them for fear of hurting them. It was like taking a life to cut a daffodil."
Somehow without the benefit of historical perspective, Chaplin was able to recognize the distinction between the respective slaughter of WWI and WWII. Though the way Britain, France, Germany, and Russia served up its youth became a mass-scale human sacrifice, the nationalism involved in WWI, though continent-sundering, was still more or less inclusive. Nations stood together to guard their homelands, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or politics. On the other hand, the suicidal, cannibalistic slaughter unleashed by the Third Reich, symbolized beautifully by the popping of Adenoid Hynkel's globe-balloon, was built entirely on exclusivity—of facing not only imagined enemies outside the state, but inside it as well. Tomainia's Phooey very calculatingly discusses the importance of stirring up anti-Jewish sentiment to distract his non-Jewish majority from the real problems his country faces. It's panem et circenses but without the bread and with the entire country turned into a circus.
If the WWI prologue felt daringly cinematic (shot on location, whole sequences dependant upon the interplay of shadow and light, like when the barber accidentally crosses enemy lines in a cloud of smoke), the rest of the film, set under the banner of double-crossed Tomainian fascism, is unapologetically theatrical. The sets, whether of the Jewish ghetto or Hynkel's palace, look barely believable, more like two-dimensional stage décor than anything you're accustomed to seeing in a movie. The frame of the screen becomes a proscenium with the actors shot mostly in full, body-length long shots.
Chaplin stages the remainder of his film like theater, because that's how he sees fascism: a calculated, but eminently superficial, reconfiguring of reality to flatter insecure egos. When Hynkel greets visiting Bacterian leader Napoloni, he has him sit in a much lower chair, so he'll know his place. Oh, and better yet, he'll feel cowed by a statue of Hynkel glowering at him from the side. When the two dictators sit in barber chairs, each tries to crank their seat higher than the other, until they end up bobbing up and down like deranged carousel horses.
Likewise, Chaplin shows how the focus of Adolph Hitler's speeches—spouted in high-volume gibberish by Hynkel, with a dose of pantomime—lay not in what he was saying but how he was saying it, veering wildly from rage-filled tirades to weepy sentiment. For Chaplin's The Great Dictator integrates sound completely into his portrait of fascism's theatricality. The crowd goes wild when Hynkel shouts "Soldiers for Tomainia!"—but when he makes a cutting gesture with his hand, they instantly go silent.
This theatricality underscores the idea that image was more important to the fascist mindset than reality. However, it's here that Chaplin demonstrates his greatest degree of self-reflection. The entire Chaplin canon up until The Great Dictator is built around the idea that image is more important than reality, that the denial of reality enables survival. Think of the Little Tramp. He's homeless, unemployed, often at odds with the law. And yet he always wears a beat-up coat with tails, dress slacks, a derby hat, and a walking stick. Yes, the coat is tight, the slacks are baggy, and the hat is dented. But it's Chaplin's statement that if he aspires to look like a gentleman, he must be a gentleman, even if he's a vagrant. Image is everything.
But by the making of The Great Dictator, Chaplin seems to have realized the falsehood of that principle. And by showing all the silly acts of schoolyard boasting that Hynkel and Napoloni engage in, he thoroughly rejects it. He shows how mutable image alone can be when his Jewish barber is mistaken for Hynkel and switches places with him.
After all, the denial of reality led to Western Europe's misguided attempts at appeasement in the late '30s and America's continued isolationism in 1940. There are moments when it seems Chaplin almost tricks us into a similar complacency. At first, he has us think that the Brooklyn-accented stormtroopers who patrol the Ghetto are nothing but buffoons, thick-skulled targets for Paulette Goddard's intrepid frying pan. (The distinct American accents of the soldiers may be like the Nativity scenes St. Francis of Assisi set in local Italian milieus, a way to make something foreign seem relatable to an insulated public.) But then, in a shockingly unexpected moment of violence, the stormtroopers tie a makeshift noose around the Jewish barber's neck and hoist him up on a lamppost in an attempted lynching. Hynkel's forces may be laughable, but that doesn't make them any less dangerous. Never think that mediocrity can't be a threat.
Of course, much of The Great Dictator is Chaplin's call for the United States to wake up to the Nazi threat. Despite his declarations of being an "internationalist," Chaplin wasn't a touchy-feely pacifist. He urged the U.S. to enter WWI and toured the country in 1918 to promote the purchase of war bonds. By transplanting a European ghetto to what seems like a New York City street populated by actors with American accents, he made real and relatable for the American public what Nazi persecution was like at a time when most Hollywood studios didn't dare to make any film about fascism or anti-Semitism. The word "Jew" had barely been uttered in a studio film since The Jazz Singer—and this despite most of the major studio heads being Jewish.
In a sense, The Great Dictator is Chaplin's The Jazz Singer, because, at the end, in a speech lasting six minutes, he talks, not as the Tramp (or even the barber), but as himself, urging the nations of the world to reject hatred and come together as one. It's a speech that's usually rejected even by defenders of the film, though direct address seems, to me, to be self-reflexively modern. Those who criticize it are like those who condemn the psychiatrist's monologue at the end of Psycho: taking at literal-minded face value what's being presented.
Believe me, I have no doubt that Chaplin meant everything he says here, but still he injects an unsettling undercurrent of irony. Just when he's reached the apotheosis of his speech, calling out to Goddard's Hannah from across the radio waves, the lilting strain of the ethereal music that played when Hynkel danced with his globe creeps onto the soundtrack. Maybe the barber has succeeded in bringing Tomainia's march across Europe to a halt. Maybe everybody will join hands. The crowds that cheer after his speech seem to indicate that. But that reprise of Hynkel's musical accompaniment to his megalomania seems to indicate Chaplin's great distress over a world so volatile that any one man can have power to rile or soothe a whole population by himself. The Great Dictator shows how one man can change the world and how truly scary that can sometimes be.
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This is that rarest of occasions: when a Criterion transfer doesn't do justice to a film. Certain key moments seem nearly out of focus, others blown-out, like when Paulette Goddard first gazes upon the new hairdo the barber has given her. Admittedly, Chaplin shot most of the film using intense key lighting, but the previous, non-Criterion release in 2004 never seemed hindered by the threat of overexposure. Likewise, though Chaplin intended for certain sequences to possess a hollow, echo-chamber-like quality, Criterion's soundtrack is muted and fuzzy, with an astonishing amount of crackle.
Two insightful new visual essays by Cecilia Cenciarelli and Jeffrey Vance make us wish they had recorded the audio commentary instead of Chaplin historians Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran. Other features are lifted from the previous non-Criterion 2004 release, including the brilliant documentary "The Tramp and the Dictator," a study of the parallel lives of Hitler and Chaplin featuring commentators as diverse as Sidney Lumet and a former member of Hitler's inner circle. Also rehashed is color production footage shot by Chaplin's brother Sydney of The Great Dictator shoot, along with the barbershop sequence from Chaplin's 1919 short Sunnyside. However, a booklet featuring Chaplin's 1940 defense of the film in The New York Times powerfully illuminates its initial controversy.
Though inseparable from its 1940 production, The Great Dictator is an oddly timeless comparison of stardom and totalitarianism, mass entertainer and mass murderer, director and dictator.