The Great Dictator (1940, Charles Chaplin)
It’s well known that Charles Chaplin spent years preparing and executing his plans for each film he directed, typically mapping them out meticulously long before they went into production, then adding to the mystique with extended shooting schedules and postproduction periods. Such working methods are uncommon but not unheard of; if we wanted to torture you or cause you to skim this, we could list a few examples. But movies that take a great deal of time to make — whether Eyes Wide Shut or any CGI cartoon — tend to exist in a curious, out-of-time mode. They reflect a broad perspective of a large swath of history and don’t seem to move or evolve with the changes around them. This is what makes it so impressive that Chaplin’s seventh proper feature (eighth if one counts the four-reeler Shoulder Arms) is almost a lightning bolt, a newsreel, a hot-off-the-presses capturing of the terrifying essence of its moment.
It’s hard to imagine now an artist being subversive enough to so viciously attack a world leader, even one we now remember as an archvillain like Adolf Hitler. Almost to the end of the ’30s, the West continued to negotiate with Hitler, to try and appeal to his core humanity — a laughable concept from our more enlightened chair. Chaplin, on the other hand, was one of many liberal thinkers who saw the dangers of not only Hitler’s territorial conquerings but of his poisonous, genocidal attitudes — made explicit in his book Mein Kampf, which had been published in English in the tipping-point year of 1933. The Third Reich was well into power by the time Chaplin’s previous film Modern Times was completed. Four years later, upon Dictator‘s wild and celebrated entrance into the marketplace, World War II had begun — the malignant inspiration for Chaplin’s film and characters had only grown into more of a menace, more of a focus of attention that couldn’t be diverted. As a result, quite improbably, he crafted one of the finest and most ruthless satires ever put on film.
This also happens to be Chaplin’s first proper talkie. In another symbol of his unflappable perfectionism, City Lights had entered production before sound was widespread but wasn’t released until it was already an outlier for its lack of dialogue. This didn’t stop it from becoming the massively successful long-awaited new work from the most popular filmmaker and comic in the world, and in turn didn’t stop Chaplin from creating another “pantomine” film. Modern Times, like its predecessor, contains sound effects, music, and — eventually — singing but forgoes standard dialogue altogether. It also marks a bittersweet departure: the final appearance of Chaplin’s most beloved alter ego, the Tramp. The Great Dictator becomes, then, not just the first feature in which Chaplin speaks but the beginning of a branching outward beyond his established routines that would prove both artistically fertile and commercially treacherous.
Dictator itself would be an auspicious beginning — it didn’t just capture the zeitgeist, it defined it, and did so in such a way that its astounding relevance still translates to a wholly different time and place now. Despite being dated by its very nature, it speaks to people like no other Chaplin film save City Lights. Like all of his features, it remains an instantly, naturally appealing entertainment that induces strong, sustained laughter, but on repeated exposure it looks increasingly sophisticated as its wit and the careful, balletic nature of its story and cinematic setups can be uncovered ever more by the viewer. Chaplin’s intense time of preparation pays off in this regard; his films are always repeatedly rewarding in a manner that is still shot for and imitated now. Dictator itself is easily as funny and buoyant as the silent films, but Chaplin’s filmmaking brilliance was never really in question. Perhaps the more quickly startling impression is, when considering how fascinating and impeccable and invigorating a silent persona Chaplin was, how wonderful he is at delivering dialogue without ever relying on it.
Words might matter, but appearances are still everything: even with the addition of dialogue and the dismissal of the Tramp role, Chaplin’s physicality is if anything more than ever the focus of the narrative. The premise makes much of Adolf Hitler’s evident resemblance to the star, or at least to the star in his Tramp regalia. As it happens, Chaplin plays two roles: a frequently confused Jewish barber who’s just recovered from WWI-vintage injuries and the fearsome European dictator “Adenoid Hynkel.” The former’s resemblance to the latter creates farcical chaos as the film progresses, of course. Conditions in the Jewish ghetto are depicted with unwavering honesty, Hitler’s bigotry and brutality targeted with scathing precision — his loud belligerence and bursting ego manifested with not just his bureacratic, meaninglessly burdensome time management (a sculptor and portrait painter permanently on standby) but by a luminously poetic dance with an inflated globe personifying Hitler’s foolish, lopsided ambitions. For the average American audience member in 1940, the nonsense words that spew from Chaplin’s mouth in his “speeches” as Hitler (let’s skip calling him Hynkel; what’s the point now?) might have already been catharsis enough — a delicious turnaround of the silly, insipid sing-song phrases that at last spilled from the Tramp at the end of Modern Times.
In both of his roles, Chaplin is terrific, and the tension and madness in the ghetto doesn’t offset the wonder of the comedy setpieces, which gives this a leg up on just about any other film that attempted to make light of this terrible period. The pathos is considerable, even in retrospect, but the laughs are constant, from an upside-down plane to some strawberries with mustard — always rendering Hitler and Mussolini both as absurd self-regarding maniacs, pointedly reserving both the smart Bugs Bunny-like antics and the well-phrased insights for the nameless, long-suffering Jews. It’s quite a balancing act, and done with taste and considerable genius that transcends its status as of-the-moment propaganda. Among other things, it’s one of the few examples that doesn’t fall back on easy stereotypes to make its point.
Chaplin himself admitted some time later that he wouldn’t have taken a stab at this if he’d known the extent of the madness in the camps, but if anything our enlightened perspective actually makes the film stronger, braver. Given how many people who should’ve known better, in privileged places such as the U.S., continued to maintain neutrality or positivity about Hitler, it’s now remarkable how The Great Dictator so easily lands on the proper side of history with no apology or context necessary. It will be easy for some audience members to assume that the dialogue given to the Nazis is exaggerated in the directness of its evil — not that anyone belives those in power in the Reich were gentle souls but because it seems bonkers that statements in explicit and public terms would so passionately espouse racial and religious hatred and open support of condemnation of innocent people, even genocide. In fact, if one reads a book like William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, it becomes apparent that Chaplin’s lampoons of Nazi speechifying — with characters clearly modeled on Goering and Goebbels — barely qualify as satire, they’re so close to verbatim. Chilling indeed.
The one element that hasn’t aged so well is the finale. After Chaplin’s two stories converge, with the world leader picked up in a fishing-boat fallacy and the hapless barber standing up in front of a Triumph of the Will-like league of supporters, Chaplin takes off the mask and lifts the curtain and talks to us about the state of our world. Its necessity is easy to understand, as with the very similar ending of Foreign Correspondent, but from a cinematic standpoint one sort of wishes that the story didn’t stop dead to allow the director to speak directly to his audience — Chaplin’s in the process of keeping an unlikely comic premise going on agreeably and with full energy for two full hours, which is nearly unheard of, and it’s more tantalizing now to imagine how he’d wrap up the switcheroo he’s set up. That said, the speech is quite stirring and beautiful, and the closing image of Paullette Goddard gazing toward the heavens memorably sobering in its hope and, alas, futility.
One’s emotional state after seeing The Great Dictator is best described as complex and overwhelmed, which is not uncommon for Chaplin’s movies, especially as they progressively become more political. The film’s stark treatment of the world at a turning point seems a contradiction with its procession of balletic comedy setpieces, and yet perhaps there’s a reason that such blanket absurdity — the joy in the fear — was so much more common before the last bombs of that planet-altering, horrible war fell. The world shown to us in the film is an ugly nightmare, despite being a glossy variation on the truth, but Dictator also shows us the last desperate throes of something that we lost when we realized our ability to destroy ourselves. Chaplin would never make a film remotely as successful for the remainder of his career, but collectively his work for United Artists in the ’30s and ’40s demonstrates something close to the pinnacle of cinematic arts, certainly of cinematic comedy. What a bold and brilliant filmmaker and performer he was — more than anything, the sort of hand we needed guiding us though a time like this.