Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Great Dictator (1940)

Historical context is paramount when discussing Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. The year is 1940, and although the United States was just one year away from joining World War II, the country was still technically "at peace" with Germany. And yet, Charlie Chaplin took no notice and promptly made every effort to mock Adolf Hitler in his film.

Internationally known as one of the biggest stars in the silent film era, Chaplin undertook his first speaking role in The Great Dictator, a film in which he wrote, directed, produced and starred. Chaplin was actually born in South London, but he filmed the movie in the U.S., where it was subsequently released. And though he indeed looks the part -- there is no Jewish ancestry in Chaplin's background.

Anyway, in the film, Chaplin portrays two characters: Adenoid Hynkel -- an obvious satire of the unruly dictator himself -- and an unnamed Jew, who starts as a soldier fighting for the Central Powers, and then, back home, is a barber. He simply goes by the name, the Barber. Chaplin plays both characters because the Barber is meant to be Hynkel's doppelganger; he looks exactly like him, but could not act more differently.

The film begins with the Barber during warfare. During this sequence, and throughout the rest of this movie, Chaplin employs his special brand of slapstick humor. Though this special type of comedy may not appeal to all, Chaplin is masterful at it, and even speeds up the filming during some scenes to make his character -- already ditzy and clumsy -- look even moreso. He soon finds his ticket out of the war when he stumbles upon an officer, Commander Schultz (Reginald Gardiner), who is in danger. The Barber hops in Schultz's plane, and flies it out of enemy territory, eventually crash-landing it and requiring medical attention for the both of them.

And then, we meet Hynkel. Whereas Hitler has an intimidating, commanding presence, Hynkel is the opposite. He is small, wimpy, and rather dumb. One humorous scene revolves around Hynkel occupying himself in his office by using every part of his body to keep a balloon-globe afloat. Undoubtedly, Chaplin -- adverse to the real life Hitler -- did not bother holding back in his belittling and satirical depiction..

While Hynkel is evil and malicious and ill-hearted, The Barber is warm and kind and good-natured. But upon his return to his barbershop, located in the Jewish ghetto, he is constantly targeted by German soldiers for prejudice. They beat him, and spray racial slurs on his shop, which eventually forces him into hiding. But before that, he befriends a fellow Jewish woman, Hannah, a sweet, idealistic and self-sufficient women who becomes the Barber's romantic interest. Hannah, portrayed by Paulette Goddard, was Chaplin's wife at the time, but the pair would divorce shortly thereafter in 1942.

Charlie Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel
The Barber is momentarily redeemed when he once again runs into Commander Schultz, who recognizes him as his rescuer from the war, and consequently issues direct orders that the Barber should not be harmed. This eventually leads to a treason charge of Schultz for befriending and aiding Jews, and he is forced to go into hiding with the Barber and eventually Hannah.

Meanwhile, not only does the film mock Hitler, but Benito Mussolini as well. Depicted as Benzino Napaloni (Jackie Oates), the fellow dictator joins Hynkel at one point to discuss foreign policy. Though the two try to employ psychological warfare upon each other, the end result is a hysterical food fight between the two leaders.

More hilarity ensues as the Barber remains in hiding with Hannah, Schultz, and other Jewish comrades who, prior to the war, held prominent positions in the world. The group decides to conspire to take down Hynkel, and end things once and for all, but humorously cannot decide who the one person will be to do it. Eventually, the plan is foiled when the Barber and Schultz are captured, and Hannah and the rest of the group escape to Osterlich (a fictional depiction of Auschwitz).

Again, I stated earlier that though the film is a satire, it is not a pure comedy. Contrarily so, the movie truly makes the viewer run the emotional gauntlet. At times you will find yourself laughing out loud, at times you will find yourself angry at the irrational displays of prejudice, and you will find yourself warmed by the innocent moments of affection between the Barber and Hannah.

Chaplin, as the Barber, with Paulette Goddard.
But, you knew that the Barber and Hynkel were doppelgangers for a reason, and eventually, the German military confuses the two. As a result, the Barber, who everyone thinks is Hynkel, is pushed to a podium to give a speech while standing in front of not only the entire German military -- but thousands upon thousands of German countrymen.

What follows is arguably one of the most important moments to ever occur in the history of film. The Barber, who is no longer the Barber anymore, but Charlie Chaplin himself, stares directly into the camera and delivers a speech that every human being needs to hear at some point in their lives. His minutes-long speech is a direct commentary on human behavior during his time period -- which was amidst warfare -- and his words could not be more relevant, even to this day. He preaches for the goodness of our race, and reminds everybody of what we all ought to be. Quoting the speech would not even due it justice, and thus, I will link to it here.  Would it take away the payoff by watching the speech before watching the entire film? Perhaps -- but it certainly wouldn't spoil the movie for you.

During a time of deepest uncertainty in the world, Chaplin courageously stepped forward and risked everything to give his insight into the state of the world. He mocked one of the most powerful figures at the height of his reign, and did not fear the repercussions. Chapin himself was investigated for Communism during points of his life, and he even requested that the film be pulled from theaters during the height of the war.

Allegedly, an escapee from Germany who worked in the Ministry of Culture, told Chaplin that Hitler privately screened The Great Dictator two times. Said Chaplin in response, "I'd give anything to know what he thought of it."

So would I. Very much so.

~ Review by Ddubbs

No comments:

Post a Comment