One of the biggest blind-spots I have when it comes to American cinema is certainly Silent Films. I really hadn’t seen any Silent Films before the beginning of this year, when I started to check some of them out as part of my quest to see 366 movies I’ve never seen before in this year, mainly because they tend to be pretty quick. And while I’ve dabbled in German Expressionist film like Nosferatu and the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I’ve mainly stuck with the comedies. And while I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, my preference definitely lies with good old Charlie Chaplin. It’s not like this is a shocking revelation or anything, but Chaplin was pretty much the best. I’ve been making my way through his films, and completely loved the Kid, the Circus, City Lights, and Modern Times, all of which really are masterpieces of slapstick comedy. And while it’s pretty hard to pick which of those movies is the best, I personally think that Chaplin’s absolute masterpiece is, oddly, his first film to eschew his traditional Silent format, the Great Dictator. I finally saw the movie, and I’m deeply sad that it’s taken me this long to fully experience this film, because it’s honestly one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
Now, even though I’d never seen the movie, I’ve obviously picked up a lot about it just going through life, since it’s one of the most famous films ever made. I knew that it was Chaplin playing an obvious Hitler analogue, mainly because they both had the same mustache, and it was done to simultaneously poke fun at the monster, and also to provide a rousing speech at the end to try and muster some sort of sanity in a world gradually sliding off the brink of lunacy. And while that’s also true, actually seeing the film showed me that there was so much more to it. It somehow manages to perfectly balance slapstick comedy, romance, the horror of the Nazi regime, political satire, and hope, which is a hell of a feat.
The plot of the film revolves around our two protagonists, both played by Chaplin. We have the Barber, an unnamed Jewish man who briefly dresses like the Little Tramp, but doesn’t really have any of the same characteristics as that character, and Hynkel, the megalomaniacal dictator of the European nation Tomainia. Things start out with some wacky slapstick in World War 1, with the Barber goofing around in the Tomainian army, befriending a soldier named Schultz, before falling into a coma after a disastrous plane crash. So the Barber spends a couple decades in a coma, while his beloved Tomania becomes a very different place. Mirroring the real life rise of the Nazi party, Hynkel and his regime have taken the country over, turning it into a fascist police-state. And once the Barber finally wakes up from his coma and returns to the Jewish ghetto he calls home, we begin alternating between the two characters and their journeys.
Hynkel works at strengthening his grasp on the country, and begins the process of becoming an Emperor, with the help of his Goebbels parody Garbitsch. Together they begin amping up the military, prepare to invade an Austria analogue, and struggling to get along with the films version of Mussolini, Napoloni. And while all of this is going on we also get to see the poor Barber’s life. He returns to his ghetto, shocked to find that he and his Jewish friends and neighbors are now being persecuted and losing their rights. He struggles to make a living, while falling in love with his neighbor Hannah. The Barber does his best to live a happy life, but Hynkel and his regime inevitably come crashing into the ghetto, destroying any chance of happiness. He ends up teaming up with Schultz, who has been kicked out of the party, and the two end up getting captured and sent to a concentration camp. But before anything too horrific happens in the camp, the two escape and just so happen to be wandering around the Tomainian border at the same time that Hynkel is getting ready to invade their neighboring country. And it’s finally at this point that the movie becomes a case of mistaken identity, and the two men’s identical appearances becomes important. Hynkel is mistaken for the Barber, and is imprisoned, while Schultz and the Barber pretend that the Barber is really Hynkel, and go about their way, trying to survive. And as the film ends, a whole group of Tomainian soldier are eagerly awaiting a speech from Hynkel before commencing their invasion, and the Barber gets before them, and delivers one of the most beautiful and moving speeches I’ve ever heard. If you can’t watch the video, at least read it, because it’s really spectacular.
I’m sorry but I don’t want to be an Emperor, that’s not my business.
I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone.
I should like to help everyone if possible, Jew, gentile, black man, white.
We all want to help one another, human beings are like that.
We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.
We don’t want to hate and despise one another.
In this world there is room for everyone and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone.
The way of life can be free and beautiful.
But we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate;
has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed.
We have developed speed but we have shut ourselves in:
machinery that gives abundance has left us in want.
Our knowledge has made us cynical,
our cleverness hard and unkind.
We think too much and feel too little:
More than machinery we need humanity;
More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.
Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.
The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together.
The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men, cries out for universal brotherhood for the unity of us all.
Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.
To those who can hear me I say “Do not despair”.
The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress:
the hate of men will pass and dictators die and the power they took from the people, will return to the people and so long as men die liberty will never perish . . .
Soldiers: don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you, enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think or what to feel, who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder.
Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men, machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts.
You are not machines. You are not cattle. You are men.
You have the love of humanity in your hearts.
You don’t hate, only the unloved hate.
The unloved and the unnatural.
Soldiers: don’t fight for slavery, fight for liberty.
In the seventeenth chapter of Saint Luke it is written:
– “The kingdom of God is within man”
Not one man, nor a group of men, but in all men; in you.
You the people have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You the people have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then in the name of democracy let us use that power. Let us all unite!
Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security.
By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie.
They do not fulfill that promise, they never will.
Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people.
Now let us fight to fulfill that promise.
Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance.
Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.
Soldiers! In the name of democracy: Let us all unite!
By the gods. That speech! I’ve seriously become obsessed with it. I’ve probably watched the Youtube video of it, or read the speech about a dozen times since I first heard Chaplin give it. It’s really a thing of beauty. You can experience it over and over, and keep finding new little nuances and bits of brilliance in it. Before I get too far into discussing the movie, I just have to say how beautiful it is that the first time Chaplin chose to speak to us through his art-form, he took the advantage to end with something this powerful. Chaplin drug his feet as long as he could before embracing the talkies, and while you could see it as him not being comfortable with the new way of making pictures, you could also view it as Chaplin never having anything that he deemed important enough to say to us. And then he saw the rise of Hitler, Europe’s descent into madness, and America’s shocking ambivalence to the whole thing, and just couldn’t keep quiet any longer. It’s pretty mind-blowing to think about the fact that really up until Pearl Harbor, most of America, especially big business, were pretty down with Hitler, and didn’t want to interfere. They saw the racism and hatred brewing over in Europe, and just wanted to ignore it, while maybe making money. Most of the major film studios were chummy with Nazi Germany right up until the war began, and even as late as 1940 it was considered ridiculous that Chaplin would do something this bold. I have to imagine that while this movie was being made, Chaplin was looking around at the American people, baffled that he seemed to be the only person who could see Hitler for what he was.
And it’s not just that last speech that makes this movie a masterpiece. I had heard about how amazing the speech was, it’s probably what it’s most famous for, but really the entire picture is just about perfect. I previously mentioned how insane it is that this movie somehow manages to both contain the plight of a Jewish ghetto with some silly Chaplin slapstick, and it really has to be seen to believed. You would think that one of these conflicting tones would overpower the other, causing the comedy to seem out of place, or the drama to be unearned, but it does the impossible and creates an experience where you can one scene see Nazi thugs beating up impoverished Jews, and then cut to Hynkel and Napolini having a silly pissing-contest where they’re eating spicy mustard and having fits. All of Chaplin’s films have a certain amazing ability to vacillate between tones with aplomb, this film takes it to a whole other level. There are several gags that made me laugh out loud, like the Barber accidentally getting lost in the chemical fog of WWI and briefly walking around with American soldiers, Hynkel’s little balloon ballet, the aforementioned mustard scene, and some classic Little Tramp physical comedy like walking around on a beam with a pot on his head, and at the same time there were scenes like the goons beating up the people of the ghetto that instantly bring you down to the crushing realities of life during the Nazi regime. I know Chaplin later said that if he were aware of the true horror happening in the concentration camps he wouldn’t have been so flippant with the comedy, and yeah, some things do come off a tad insensitive with hindsight, but the movie still paints the reality of Nazi Germany in an honest and bleak way. Chaplin saw the horrors unfolding in Europe, and decides to do his best taking down the little tyrant with the two-pronged approach of mockery and an honest, heartfelt plea for sanity in a world going mad. I really implore anyone and everyone to see this movie, or at least read that speech, and really take it in, because history is doomed to repeat itself, and we must never forget the horrors or Nazi Germany, and always remember that we shouldn’t give into our base, conservative views, and always strive to be better.
The Great Dictator was written and directed by Charlie Chaplin and distributed by United Artists, 1940.