Great Moments in Cinema: The Great Dictator

Carol Burnett once said “Comedy is tragedy plus time.”  What she meant is that anything can be considered funny given enough time and distance.  George Carlin agreed with her to a point.  He believed that everything could be considered funny, and it didn’t matter how much time had passed.  His contention was that “It all depends on how you construct the joke.”  Carlin was not saying that we should make light of tragedy or atrocity, or that they aren’t something to be taken seriously.  Instead, he was saying that humor can be found in even the most awful of situations, and that laughter can sometimes rob these tragedies of their power and help start the healing process.  In other words, satire is often more effective when it takes aim at a specific target in the moment, rather than waiting until some nebulous amount of time or distance has passed.  This brings us to director Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), which is the focus of today’s column.

Released during the height of World War II, the film is a wicked satire that takes aim at Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich.  Chaplin’s goal was to knock these awful people down a peg or two by pointing out the ridiculousness of their cause, and to that end, he portrays them as bumbling, mostly incompetent doofuses.  In real life, Hitler and his men consolidated their power by sowing and exploiting fear, and then used that fear to conquer entire nations.  With The Great Dictator, Chaplin let audiences know that it was okay to laugh at these monsters, and thus he robbed them of a lot of their power.  After all, when the monster is no longer scary, it is no longer something to be feared.  Chaplin exploited a weakness in Hitler’s image, and while it may have been a small salvo in the war, it was enough to give weary audiences hope that this genocidal madman might not be the unstoppable overlord his propaganda machine was portraying him as.  Instead, they could see him for what he was; a little man with delusions of grandeur.

In addition to writing and directing The Great Dictator, Chaplin plays two characters in the film.  The first is Adenoid Hynkel, the ruthless but inept dictator of the country of Tomania.  The other is a Jewish barber who lives in the ghetto, and is the spitting image of the man most people know as “the Phooey” (a sly take on Hitler’s title of der Führer).  In this way, the audience is privy to the daily foibles of the ruling military class, which is contrasted with the deplorable and inhumane way they treat the Jews living in the ghetto.  Eventually, of course, the Jewish barber is mistaken for Hynkel, and he is brought to a huge rally where he delivers an impassioned anti-war speech.  It is this scene that is often singled out by critics when discussing this film, and rightfully so.  While it may be a bit obvious and corny, it is nonetheless a powerful and iconic scene, as Chaplin is speaking directly from the heart and right to the audience.  He is imploring them to realize that we are all one people, and that war is ultimately a pointless and futile exercise that only small-minded and short-sighted people engage in.  As great as that speech is, however, this column is not about that scene.  Instead, it’s about a scene that occurs earlier in the film, and covers the same ground in a much more subtle, beautiful, and succinct manner.

Toward the middle of the film, Hynkel speaks with his advisors, and they tell him that the war should not stop with the extermination of the Jews in Europe.  Minister of the Interior Garbitsch (Henry Daniel) encourages him to continue invading other nations, filling Hynkel’s head with dreams of “a blonde Europe, Asia, America,” all of which would be ruled by a brunette dictator.  Hynkel contemplates the idea, but claims that so much power is daunting and the very thought of it is frightening.  He dismisses Garbitsch, and then leers at the globe sitting in the middle of his vast office.  A look passes over Hynkel’s face and, suddenly, the thought of conquering the entire world is not so frightening.  He picks up the globe (in actuality, a large balloon) from its stand, and for the next few minutes, he performs a graceful dance with it, balancing it on his fingertips and tossing it into the air while executing a series of leaps and pliés.  His dance is cut short, though, when the balloon bursts in his hands, and Hynkel collapses against his desk and weeps uncontrollably.

In one simple, elegant sequence, Chaplin offers up a metaphor not only for Hitler, but for all dictators.  These power mad individuals may hold the world in their grasp for a short time, but eventually their tenuous grip on all that power will burst like a balloon.  This notion is reinforced just prior to the dance, when Garbitsch compares Hynkel to Caesar, another conqueror who also ruled a large swath of the world, but eventually fell from power, cast aside by the relentless march of history.  It is as though Chaplin was trying to reassure audiences that things may have seemed bleak at the time, but they would not remain that way.  He was telling people that even though Hitler was in the midst of  his seemingly unstoppable campaign to conquer the world, he would not succeed, and we only had to look to history for proof of that.  And he does it all in a wordless, three-minute sequences that manages to be lyrical, lovely, and humorous all at once, not to mention much more subtle than the effective but altogether obvious speech he delivers during the film’s climax.

The Great Dictator was a massive hit when it was released in 1940, and this is no doubt due in large part to the fact that it was a comedy that dared to confront an overwhelming tragedy head on, rather than wait until years later when the wounds have had time to heal.  People were angry and afraid, and they needed something to relieve the pain caused by one cruel and misguided little man.  Chaplin was more than happy to provide that relief, and he did just that by assuring audiences that it was okay to laugh at Hitler, even though his actions were deplorable.  Chaplin understood that there is a fine line between mocking the man and mocking the tragedy caused by the man, and it is this understanding that makes his film so successful.  Chaplin makes sure that he never once crosses that line in the film, and thus audiences of any time period are able to enjoy the comedy without feeling as though they are laughing at the tragedy.  It is only unfortunate that the film is still relevant some 70 years after its release, as there is no shortage of would-be dictators.  Thankfully, Chaplin has several spiritual descendents, all of whom strive to help us find the humor in even during the worst tragedies.


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