The Great Dictator (1940)

The Great Dictator (1940)

The Little Tramp takes down Hitler in this iconic satire on the dangers of over-mighty strong-men

Director: Charles Chaplin

Cast: Charles Chaplin (Jewish barber/Adenoid Hynkel), Paulette Goddard (Hannah), Jack Oakie (Benzino Napolini), Reginald Gardiner (Schultz), Henry Daniell (Garbitsch), Billy Gilbert (Herring), Maurice Moscovich (Mr Jaeckel), Emma Dunn (Mrs Jaeckel), Grace Hyle (Madame Napolini), Carter de Harven (Bacterian ambassador), Bernard Gracey (Mr Mann)

They were born four days apart and had the two most famous moustaches of the 20th century. There the similarities end. One became the world’s most beloved comic, the other its most reviled bogeyman. Chaplin and Hitler were bound together in people’s minds for a decade before Chaplin turned his revulsion at Hitler into satire: The Great Dictator sees him play both a version of his Little Tramp (here reimagined as a Jewish barber) and a version of the Fuhrer (as a temper-tantrum-throwing, hatred-spewing, lunatic). But it also sees Chaplin effectively playing himself, capping the film with a famous humanitarian appeal to the audience for a little peace and understanding.

The Great Dictator is, just about, a comedy. A Jewish barber (Chaplin) serving in the front lines for Tomania during World War One, saves the life of officer Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) but loses his memory. In a veterans’ hospital for 20 years, he emerges into a radically different Tomania, now an anti-Semitic, fascist dictatorship ruled by the barber’s doppelganger Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again). Hynkel rants and raves about racial purity and Tomanian expansion and his stormtroopers march through the Jewish ghetto. The barber is saved from death, first by Hannah (Paulette Goddard) and then by Schultz, now a senior leader in the new Tomania. But, as Hynkel eyes up an invasion of neighbouring Osterlich, what role can the barber play in stopping his plans?

Chaplin said later, if he had known the horrors Hitler’s regime would perpetrate, he would never have made the film. That would have robbed us of one of the sharpest, most astute satires of power-hungry radicalism ever made. But Chaplin made his stinging assault on Hitler – painting him as both ludicrous and insanely dangerous – at a time when Hollywood was still nervously appeasing Germany to keep access to its film market, before the true horrors were known.

Chaplin’s film is chilling enough with what it does know. Its depiction of bullying stormtroopers is deeply unsettling, for all they are also comic buffoons. These jackbooted bullies march into the ghetto, swiftly escalating from daubing “Jew” on shop windows to beating and shooting innocents. Hynkel casually orders the execution of thousands and day-dreams of a world where Jews are no more. We see Jews brutalised. Chaplin doesn’t pull punches in demonstrating fascism is a dangerous cancer in the world, or that the likes of Hynkel are appalling in their ruthless heartlessness.

That makes it a mark of genius that Hynkel is also the centre of a ridiculous farce painting him as inept, childish and laughable. Chaplin achieves this by masterfully channelling Hitler’s mannerisms – no less than you would expect from the most gifted physical comedian in history. We are introduced to Hynkel at a Nuremberg-style rally, delivering a speech in a hilarious mix of gobbledegook and random German words (“Werner Schnitzel!”) delivered with a perfect parody of Hitler’s physicality. (Marking the film’s careful balance between jokes and seriousness, this includes a spit-flecked rant against “Der Juden”). His grandiosity is further punctured with coughing fits and clumsiness.

That’s nothing to what we see of Hynkel off-stage. Prone to carpet-chewing rants, prat-fall prone with the manner of a bitter, insecure teenager, Hynkel is a bully elevated into a position of power, clinging to the trappings of office to give him a feeling of personal worth. Residing in a presidential palace that’s a perfect parody of Speer’s grandiose architecture, Hynkel is both laughable and deeply dangerous. Chaplin gets this mixture of the sublimely ridiculous and terrifying in every scene: most notably in Hynkel’s famous dance with an inflated globe. He bounces and cavorts with this like a romantic lover (appropriately themed to Wagner) – but it all grows out of his near sexual excitement at the idea of conquering and purifying the world of Jews (and brunettes).

The Great Dictator bursts that globe, but it also bursts the bubble of puffed-up strong men in a way that’s still highly relevant today. Hynkel and fellow dictator Napolini (a perfect capturing of Mussolini’s mannerisms, mixed with a “mamma-mia” accent from Jack Oakie) are both buffoons, who can’t even co-ordinate shaking hands in between their ludicrous salutes. These buffoons have the power and coldness to kill millions, but are both idiots. Napolini’s state visit is a hilarious game of one-up-manship, from Hynkel’s feeble attempts to intimidate Napolini in his office, to the two of them pathetically pumping their barber chairs higher and higher (to insane levels) to try and look the tallest. They even engage in a childish food fight while bickering over who will have the right to invade Osterich. Vanity, childishness and homicidal nation-destroying all hand-in-hand.

To counter his brilliant deconstruction of Hitler, Chaplin deployed his Little Tramp character in a new guise, here re-imagined as a Jewish barber, but with the same mix of good intentions and bumbling clumsiness. There is classic Chaplin business – his shaving of a client perfectly in time to Brahm’s Hungarian Dance No 5 is pretty much perfection – but also darker material. The Barber is saved from lynching, nearly gets roped into a suicide attack on Hynkel and winds up in a concentration camp. This is the Tramp’s war: his decency used to point-up the hideousness of Hynkel even more.

And, in case we miss the point, Chaplin plays a third character in the final five minutes. With Hynkel in prison (mistaken for the Barber), the Barber-as-Hynkel takes his place to speak to Tomania. He’s got the Barber’s soul, Hynkel’s appearance… but his words are Chaplin’s. Talking direct to camera – just as the Barber glances at the fourth wall throughout – Chaplin makes an impassioned plea for peace, like the curtain speech of a classical actor. He was begged not to do it (it later lead to him being denounced as a Commie) – but Chaplin was making the film to make this point. It was all very well to make Hynkel look stupid, but equally important to put forward an alternative vision, one of hope and faith in mankind’s decency. The speech may be on the nose (probably a little too much), but Chaplin delivers it with the intensity of someone who passionately believes every word he is saying – and at least it serves as a culmination of themes and ideals the entire film espouses among the jokes, rather than a blast from the blue.

The Great Dictator is over-long (at over two hours), and some of its comic moments are more successful than others. But the sequences that deconstruct Hitler are almost perfect (and feature superb support from Daniell and Gilbert as lupine Goebbels and cry-baby Goering parodies) and the film balances hilarious farce, biting political wit, and an earnest despair at the horrors of dictatorship with just the right touch of hope.

Chaplin’s genius combined with his passion created a landmark, brave film. Few others could have balanced its tonal shifts with such deft skill and perhaps no other performer could have been both so funny and so appallingly destructive. Hitler banned the film, but succumbed to curiosity and arranged a private screening. No one knew what he thought of it – but he watched it twice.

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