Two of the most influential people of the twentieth century, Adolf Hitler and Charles Chaplin, were born in the same week in April, 1889. They were among the most revered and most hated men of their time. Like Hitler, Chaplin was political. His films reflect a specific ideology. His grandest political statement is his 1940 film, The Great Dictator, his first talking picture. Chaplin combines the sound technology with his mastery of silent film techniques.
The film ridicules a man who took the lives of millions of innocent victims. This was not Chaplin’s first political film. One of his early shorts, Shoulder Arms (1918), attempts to raise morale. It was released during World War I. In Modern Times (1936), Chaplin criticizes the rise of technology and machinery, satirizing Henry Ford’s assembly line. The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s bravest work, marked the culmination of his political and ideological perspectives.
Besides sporting a similar mustache, Hitler and Chaplin shared a physical resemblance. Both men hoped to become successful artists in their youth, but only one of them succeeded. After failing the entrance exam for the Vienna Academy, Hitler was devastated and resentful. A few years before Chaplin became famous as the iconic character, the Little Tramp, Hitler literally was a tramp, living on the streets with other outsiders on the outer edges of society (The Tramp and the Dictator).
Chaplin claimed that the thought of doing a comedy on Hitler occurred to him as early as 1932 (Milton368). Initially, Chaplin was not sure such a film could be made because it could offend U.S. foreign policy. However, in October 1938, the trade papers announced that Chaplin intended to film a comedy spoof on Hitler, entitled The Dictator (Milton371). By that time, Chaplin’s films were banned in Germany because the Nazi regime believed that Chaplin was a Jew. Chaplin was not Jewish, but he never denied the assumption. In a Nazi book entitled, The Jews Are Looking At You, Chaplin is described as a “disgusting Jewish acrobat.”
Hitler’s evil was not evident at first. In fact, he helped cure inflation for Germany, put people to work, and had young soldiers march with shovels rather than guns. During the making of The Great Dictator, Hitler and Mussolini formed the Axis, and Hitler invaded Poland, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium, and occupied Paris and most of France (Wood1). Chaplin said that he would have never made the film had he known the full extent of the Nazi evil.
Even though it is not his best work, The Great Dictator remains an important film in the history of the cinema. During World War II, Hollywood rarely discussed, let alone criticized, Hitler in their films (The Tramp and the Dictator). Chaplin, at age fifty, had the courage to do both in his most ambitious and controversial film. It was his most financially successful film with earnings exceeding $5 million (Lynn 404). Even though the film did not end the war early as Chaplin had hoped, it caused a lot of controversy and was banned in occupied Europe and Latin America (Wood1).
Chaplin mocks Hitler and, by extension, the aesthetics of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda piece, Triumph of the Will (1935). Both of these films present a specific ideology. One favors a left wing utopia, and the other favors the military values of fascism. The films are similar in that they are essentially framed within speeches delivered by the dictator.
In Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl chooses only to show crowds of submissive, cheering people saluting Hitler. Everyone seems happy, but there is a sense of artificiality. Chaplin, on the other hand, delivers two speeches-one as the dictator, Adenoid Hynkel and the other as himself. In the former, Chaplin speaks gibberish to mock Hitler. The brilliance of the scene is in Chaplin’s body language and facial gestures as well as small touches, such as a microphone that withers like a flower at Hynkel’s insistent yelling. Unlike Triumph of the Will, The Great Dictator is not propaganda (Chaplin 2). In The Great Dictator, Chaplin hopes for an ideal world. In Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl presents Germany as the utopian world with Hitler as its messiah.
The most controversial scene is Chaplin’s speech at the end. In a direct address, Chaplin plays himself, looks directly into the camera, and delivers a touching appeal for peace that runs six minutes in length. In making a plea for peace, he hoped that in some way, his voice, being heard on the screen for the first time, could make some impact on the world and expedite the end of the war. Chaplin does not directly criticize Hitler, but rather links the materialistic concerns of capitalism with the military concerns of fascism. He once again criticizes technology, insisting that it is pulling people apart.
Chaplin was an idealist who always fought for and played the common man in his films. He played the Little Tramp in five of his feature length films and countless shorts to capture a human element to which everyone could relate. As the Jewish barber, Chaplin is simply a stand-in for anyone caught inexplicably amidst the chaos and madness that was engulfing the world at that time. Chaplin is no longer the Little Tramp, but his concerns for the common man continue in his final speech.
During the speech, the camera cuts to Hannah (Paulette Godard) who is outside the farmhouse. She hears Chaplin’s voice on the radio, imploring her to look up to the sky: “The clouds are lifting-the sun is breaking through, we are coming out of the darkness into a new world-where men will rise above their hate, their greed, and their brutality. Look up, Hannah. The soul of man has been given wings and at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow-into the light of hope-into the future, into the glorious future that belongs to you-to me-and to all of us. Look up, Hannah, look up” (Lynn 408). Despite this hopeful, happy ending, the war became even more devastating and did not end until 1945, claiming millions of innocent lives.
Chaplin had resisted the transition to sound and continued to make silent films into the 1930s. With The Great Dictator, he reluctantly joined the sound movement, leaving behind his iconic silent film character, the Little Tramp. Chaplin wanted his message to reach as many people as possible so he employed elements of both silent and sound films. His performance is remarkable and his pantomime is brilliant. However, one gets the sense that something is lost in this transition to sound.
Chaplin’s masterpieces include The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936). Part of the brilliance in these films is Chaplin’s ability to inflect humanism without the use of sound technology. It is interesting that most of the humor in the film stems from body movements and facial gestures rather than sound. When Hynkel gives his speech to the people of Tomania, one laughs at Chaplin’s pantomime more than his mock German. Chaplin’s use of sound seems to betray him at times. The storm troopers, for example, are unconvincingly American when they speak and seem out of place. The film is almost devoid of music, which signals that Chaplin was experimenting with sound. Some of the sound effects are wonderful, including the clanking of the coins in the Jewish barber’s stomach.
The most memorable pantomime in the film, Hynkel’s performance with the inflatable globe is both beautiful and prophetic. It is beautiful because of Chaplin’s timing and balletic qualities. It is prophetic because of the inevitable pop of the globe, which foreshadows the aftermath of the war, which left much of the world in ruins. The popping of the globe causes Hynkel to throw himself on his desk and cry like a child. In this scene and many other scenes throughout the film, Chaplin suggests that behind the façade of every dark man is a childlike vulnerability.
Besides Chaplin, there are many talented performers in The Great Dictator such as Jack Oakie as Napaloni, Billy Gilbert as Herring, Henry Daniell as Garbitsch, and Reginald Gardiner as Schultz. Never blind to the line that separates the upper and lower classes, Chaplin presents Schultz as a bourgeois man, who often uses the barber to his advantage, such as having him carry all of his luggage to the roof. The banter between Hynkel and Napaloni is often hilarious, such as the scene in which the two world leaders pump their barber chairs higher than each other.
The Great Dictator is a tragic comedy because of the knowledge that one now has of the Jewish genocide. Seen today, some of the scenes that create slapstick comedy out of Jewish persecution may seem distasteful. However, like most people at the time, Chaplin had no way of knowing the full extent of persecution that the Jews would face from Hitler. In many ways, The Great Dictator marks the beginning of the end for Chaplin. He made only four more films, never achieving the greatness of his earlier masterpieces. In 1952, after the release of his last great film, Limelight, Chaplin was exiled from the United States because of his communist leanings.
In conclusion, The Great Dictator marks Chaplin’s transition to sound in order to communicate to the world his call for peace. As he had proven in his earlier films, Chaplin depicts the common man amidst the ill effects of modernity and shows the world the power of laughter in a time of darkness.
Milton, Joyce. Tramp. New York: Harper Collins, 1996. Print.
Lynn, Kenneth S. Charlie Chaplin and His Times. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. Print.
Wood, Michael. “The Joker and the Madman.” 2011. Print.
Chaplin, Charles. “Mr. Chaplin Answers His Critics.” The New York Times 27 Oct. 1940. Print.
Narboni, Jean. “What Is Known As Really Speaking.” Pourquoi les coiffeurs? 2011. Print.
The Tramp and the Dictator. Dir. Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft. British Broadcasting Corporation, 2002. Film.
Kamin, Dan and Mehran, Hooman. Audio commentary. The Great Dictator. Dir. Charles Chaplin. Perf. Charles Chaplin and Paulette Godard. Charles Chaplin Productions, 1940. DVD.
Triumph of the Will. Dir. Leni Riefenstahl. Leni Riefenstahl-Produktion, 1935. Film.