MoMA
April 12, 2011  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator

The Great Dictator. 1940. USA. Directed, produced, and written by Charles Chaplin

The Great Dictator. 1940. USA. Directed, produced, and written by Charles Chaplin


These notes accompany the screenings of Charles Chaplin’s </i>The Great Dictator</a> on April 13, 14, and 15 in Theater 3.</p>

The Great Dictator presents unique problems for the historian trying to reconcile Bosley Crowther’s judgment in 1940 that Charles Chaplin’s movie was “perhaps the most significant film ever produced” with the film’s occasionally flawed execution of Chaplin’s grand and noble conception. Because Chaplin (1889–1977) was a universally recognized and beloved personality—whose famous moustache had been stolen by an equally well-known, but far less beloved, comedian-cum-tyrant—his film about Hitler became an event of worldwide consequence.

To deem the film a work of propaganda or to confine it to a genre (as scores of anti-Nazi movies were to emerge during the war) would be demeaning. The Great Dictator is the product of extraordinary synchronicity and an unprecedented convergence of historical and artistic forces. By this happy accident, we find the century’s most emblematic popular artist testing his gifts against the man who embodied the greatest threat to civilization, human freedom, and, in fact, art in recorded time. It is not an overstatement to refer to The Great Dictator, as David Robinson does, as “an epic incident in the history of mankind.” In its confrontation with the cosmos—and its deeply felt intent to alter the state of human affairs with a mere piece of art—the film stands alone on its very special pedestal of aspiration.

Chaplin’s audacity is even more remarkable for the fact that he was working in an essentially new medium for him: the sound film. His improvisation and experimentation had yielded to a preplanned script, and as he had anticipated, something was lost in the subservience to dialogue. The Great Dictator does not flow as rhythmically as its predecessors. In part, this can be attributed to the need to cut back and forth between the two disparate plots: Adenoid Hynkel in his palace and the Jewish barber in the ghetto. Even so, too often Chaplin’s verbal wit is outdistanced by his imagery, and there is a resultant awkwardness in the pacing. This is not to say that the film isn’t funny, but frequently the obligatory dialogue is annoyingly superfluous.

Predictably, some of the cleverest sequences include no dialogue whatsoever. One senses Chaplin’s greater comfort when relying solely on the facility of his face and body. Chaplin can provide funny one-liners (Commander Schultz: “I always thought of you as an Aryan.” Barber: “I’m a vegetarian.), but this reduces the cosmic to the merely comic. To succumb to the cliché, when dealing with the most visually expressive of performers, a picture is honestly worth a thousand words.

The Great Dictator. 1940. USA. Directed, produced, and written by Charles Chaplin

The Great Dictator. 1940. USA. Directed, produced, and written by Charles Chaplin

Hitler, whose circumstances of birth were so similar to—and were separated by only four days from—Chaplin’s (both would be celebrating their 122nd birthday this coming week) understandably held a primal fascination for the filmmaker. Both were endowed with unparalleled charisma and force of personality, yet their paths and purposes could not have been more diverse. They were their era’s unchallenged apostles of love and hate. Commercial realities aside, Hynkel is the solitary justification for The Great Dictator being a sound film, and sound (radio) was probably the primary factor in Hitler’s astonishing sway over Germany. In a sense, then, the dictator was a creature of the technology that Chaplin had so despised and so long resisted. It is a kind of poetic justice that Chaplin was so skillfully able to turn this (to him) unfamiliar weapon against his ranting nemesis. Chaplin calls attention to the fact that, as a speechmaker, Hitler is nothing more than another actor, one whose excessive animation and gestures are reminiscent of the lesser talents of the silent screen. It is the era of sound, however, and subtlety has given way to noise, civility to barbarity. Like the film’s Tramp-surrogate barber, who awakens after 20 years of amnesia to a very changed and diminished world, Chaplin, after trying to ignore reality, now resolves he must confront it.

It is doubtful that Chaplin could have so brilliantly captured the zaniness inherent in “Naziness” if he could have foreseen the enormity of evil just around the corner. The easy laughs of 1940 cannot now escape the shadow of the crematoria. Chaplin understandably failed to appreciate the full implications of the importance of destroying the Nazis, but this does not diminish the poignancy of his courageous attempt.

In the greatest of cinematic ironies, the Tramp-like barber is mistaken for the dictator and forced into making a speech to announce the annexation of Osterlich. It is a moment made infinitely more ironic by the fact that Chaplin, the man whose mistrust of words had become legendary, steps out of character and delivers a daring personal appeal to a despairing humanity. Schultz tells him: “You must speak…it’s our only hope.” And who is to say that Chaplin did not believe that this speech, and The Great Dictator itself, was not humanity’s last, best hope? Who is to say that this appeal, wrenched from “the little fellow’s” gut, didn’t save the world by giving mankind a timely kick in the butt?