Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator moves the iconic actor into the sound era while effectively satirizing German dictator Adolf HItler.
With the release of Jojo Rabbit in select theaters this weekend, I’m revisiting a few films: The Great Dictator, To Be Or Not To Be, and The Producers. The reason for doing so is that all three films satirize the Nazis in one way or another. Only two of these films were released in theaters while all of the atrocities were taking place in Europe. While they’ve only gotten better with age, not all three films were not well-received upon release. Both Charlie Chaplin and Ernst Lubitsch would take to the papers in defense of their films. Thanks to The Criterion Collection, you can also read their remarks in the included booklet. Funny enough, The Great Dictator is the only film that was a bonafide hit upon release in 1940.
All of that said, had Chaplin known what was actually happening, he might not have made this film. He said as much in his autobiography: “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”
The film starts out during World War I in 1918 with a Jewish Private (Charlie Chaplin) fighting for Tomainia. The private saves the life of Commander Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) but when their flight crashes, it changes the war’s direction. Before they know it, Tomainia surrenders. What nobody could probably realize at the time is that one plane crash would have drastic ramifications. When we meet up with them some twenty years later, the private has amnesia and now works as a barber. Meanwhile, Commander Schultz now runs the ghetto for dictator Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin).
While the barber has no recollection of his memory, Schultz saves his life this time around. It doesn’t matter that the private and neighbor Hannah (Paulette Goddard) are resisting the military forces. Not too long after this is where the film can turn rather dark but still display some biting satire. Hynkel turns to banker Hermann Epstein for money but the Jewish banker turns him down. What happens next? Hynkel decides to take things out on the Jews. Getting through these scenes will certainly depend on one’s sense of humor.
In a strange turn of events, Schultz sees what is happening and changes sides. Enough is enough! He rises up against the dictator and joins forces with the barber. This is where having a doppelganger can be to one’s advantage or disadvantage. The barber finds himself with the opportunity to save lives. Here’s a guy that’s never delivered a speech in his life and it becomes one of the most important moments in The Great Dictator. Yes, there’s a sense of irony in Charlie Chaplin playing a character delivering an impassioned speech but here we are.
Whether or not the Jewish barber is a variation on Chaplin’s Tramp is is really left up to the viewers. If you believe Chaplin, the barber isn’t even in the same universe. Again, it’s on us to make a decision.
The Great Dictator may have been a bold piece of satirical storytelling at the time but the film has aged like fine wine.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Charlie Chaplin
CAST: Charlie Chaplin,Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Henry Daniell, Reginald Gardiner, Billy Gilbert, Maurice Moscovich