When we last saw Charlie Chaplin in 1936 at the end of Modern Times, The Tramp and his muse, “the gamine” were walking away from us to a hopeful future. A mere four years later, the world had changed and so had that future. In Modern Times, Charlie used the old style of the silent film to give hope to those still mired in the Great Depression. In 1940, Chaplin would utilize sound film to look forward and give hope to those who saw only strife. The Great Dictator (the most recent release from The Criterion Collection) would tackle subjects that no other filmmaker would touch at the time. Charlie Chaplin plays two roles in the film. We meet him during World War I as a charcter we will come to know at The Barber. Much like the factory scenes in Modern Times, our introduction to the character in this film is a series of comedic scenes. The WWI scenes play up Chaplin’s slapstick talents. They also give the viewer reasons to recall his famous Tramp character – the comedy is phsyical, he plays the innocent character, and there is little dialogue. The Tramp is a character that Chaplin said was retired in the previous film – we saw him walk off into the future with his gamine.
Twenty years after the WWI scenes, The Barber (hospitalized all those years with memory loss) returns to the Jewish ghetto. His appearance as The Barber resembles that of The Tramp. But the character is now a more than just a cog in the machinery – he owns his own business. In another fun silent film era type of scene – The Barber is pursued by Stormtroopers. As he is evading capture, he is aided by Hannah (Paulette Goddard), who also played the gamine. Pairing the two together as love interests directly recalls their chacters from the previous film.
Their love here is more traditional. There’s a lovely scene as they fall in love while he fixes her hair. They even have a date – in which he dons the hat and cane of The Tramp. But once he dares to take the trappings of the character directly, he is subjected to beatings by the Stormtroopers – punishment for bringing out the character who has been retired. The film ends on a similar note to Modern Times – and it’s possibly one of the most famous Chaplin moments on film. I’ll take a look at it later as a separate scene but during the speech The Barber talks directly to Hannah – telling her, “Look up, Hannah. Look up.” That all of the hate and violence that we’ve seen in the film will end. “We are coming out of the darkness into the light” he says (although it will be another five years until that will happen. But there’s hope. Much like The Great Depression, here again there is a light of hope – the future will be bright. Hannah just needs to keep her head up and look to the sky.
The second role for Chaplin in the film is the of Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomainia. As the Adolf Hitler character, Chaplin does not miss a possible parody. Making fun of such a serious subject as Hitler and the Nazis is difficult even 70 years later – it had to be almost impossible for Chaplin. There are so many ways that this could be misinterpreted. But largely, Chaplin pulls it off by making every aspect of the Third Reich into a farce.
As the title character, Chaplin cleverly uses the word “dictator” literally. In fact, Hynkel is a terrible communicator – taking a potshot at the real Hitler’s supposed strength as a speechgiver. We first encounter Hynkel with his aides Garbitcsch (pronounced “garbage”) (as the Goebbel character) and Herring (as the Hermann Goring character). He’s giving a speech with the flag of the “double cross” in the background (as opposed to the “Iron Cross” – Swastika). His speech is a combination of made up phrases and random German words like “sauerkraut” and “schnitzel” and English words that are heavily accented to sound German like “cheese ‘n’ crackers”. This first speech recalls the “talkie” scene in Modern Times when he sings in a similar gibberish language. Here the speech is accompanied by a hilarious translation – a wink to the audience – since we can understand a few of the words and they are translated much differently in tone. It’s ultimately an indictment of how Hitler was being portaryed at the time but it’s broad enough to still apply to today’s politicians.
Hynkel even when he speaks English does not dictate (communicate) well. My favorite little gag of the film has Hynkel dictating to a stenographer. Initially he says a long, multisentence statement that she types in as just a couple keystrokes. Hynkel pauses looks over her shoulder and then nods. Then he has a short simple phrase and she types for multiple lines. He can’t even pull out a pen from its holder to sign his name. There’s even a miscommunication when fellow dicatator Benzino Napaloni arrives from Bacteria. He is set up at the train station to receive his fellow dictator and when the train pulls in – the coach ends up further down the track. And as they move back and forth to set up to receive him, the train moves back and forth frustrating them. It’s another brilliant scene that accomplishes the parody of these leaders by showing their foolishness but also exists as a great sight gag.
The relationship between the two Chaplin characters is interesting. They both look the same although no one notices or mentions that until the end. Interesting because it draws the connection of humanity between Hitler and the Jews even closer. Both are the same human beings despite how they were being portrayed by Hitler. Plus, the real power was not in the hands of the “great” dictator. He is rarely making any decisions by himself and if he does they are usually wrong. He is willing to let the Jews be in order to go after the brunettes. It is the people around him that are giving him advice and controlling his decisions. He is not the one with power.
More power is given to The Barber. The Tramp-ish character is a leader of his people – even if accidentally – he fights back against the Stormtroopers and helps lead the rebellion movement. He’s the hero in the war scenes from WWI. The Barber even wields a weapon. The scene of Chaplin shaving a customer to Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 5” is a testament to his power as he uses the sharp razor on the man without hurting him. It’s a kind of ballet the way he runs the razor over the man’s face to the music.
Hynkel has a similar dance, a ballet of sort. One of the most famous scenes from the film has Chaplin climbing the curtains like a little boy and then doing a dance with a globe to Wagner’s “Lohengrin Overture”. This scene is beautifully shot and choreographed. We’re reminded what a phsyically gifted performer that Chaplin was and his Hynkel character is portrayed with even more simple, childlike traits. At the end of the ballet, Hynkel’s world is left deflated and defeated in his hands.
The last scene is the one most remembered and most debated in the film. The Barber has accidentally replaced Hynkel at the big rally. He is called up to give a speech as the future Emperor. There’s a transformation as he stands and walks up to give the speech – his voice, facial expressions, and demeanor are no longer that of The Barber or Hynkel. Both of those characters are dead. They are both gone – replaced by Chaplin. I think it’s a brilliant move to cut off all critics. It’s in his words – “we think too much and feel too little.” It’s easy to critique the film by saying that Chaplin miscalculated by making a buffoon of a man that ordered the death of so many millions. That Hitler is not condemned or treated seriously enough. But in one moment – he is gone – with just the blink of an eye. And here Chaplin steps into the void and makes his message clear so there can be no doubt. His call is for gentleness and kindness. After laughing so hard for two hours – it’s even more powerful to stop and realize that this is a serious situation but that there is hope.
The Criterion Collection has upped the ante with this release. Their Modern Times release was beautiful and had some interesting extras. But The Great Dictator sets the bar very high for future Chaplin releases. The 1.33:1 high definition digital transfer looks crisp on Blu-ray. There’s informative commentary including Chaplin and film historians, Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran. I enjoyed two other barbershop routines by Chaplin that are included – one from “Sunnyside” (1919) and one from “King, Queen, Joker” (1921). The must-see for fans of the film is the informative documentary The Tramp and the Dictator (2001) that parallels the lives of Chaplin and Hitler. You’ll walk away from that knowing that this was a film that Chaplin had to make – his career could not have been complete without it. I think Chaplin is unfairly criticized for the Socialist leanings of that last speech. In the time of turmoil – that message of hope is necessary and powerful. His wish for peace is powerful – you can see it in his eyes during that last speech. We don’t face the same world crisis that we did in 1940 but the message is still universal and it’s part of the sheer power of film. And Chaplin here has it mastered – “To those who can hear me I say ‘Do not despair.’”