Charlie Chaplin will, quite rightly, be forever remembered as a shining star of cinema’s silent era. His ability to convey great sadness in scenes of affecting drama, and seamlessly balance that emotion with sidesplitting slapstick farce – epitomised in his magnificently moving 1921 debut The Kid – pushed the boundaries of the visual medium. However, it’s arguable that the most important contribution Chaplin made to the art of film came in the form of his first full talkie, the stirring & satirical Great Dictator.
First released in 1940, when the United States were still formally at peace with Nazi Germany, Chaplin’s film controversially captured the rousing rhetoric of condemnation aimed by many at Adolf Hitler and his anti-Semitic beliefs. Even when watching The Great Dictator now, with a contemporary eye, it’s impossible to ignore the intrepid importance symbolised by such filmmaking.
Playing on the striking facial similarities shared by himself and Hitler, Chaplin immortalised the oppressive Nazi leader in the character of Adenoid Hynkel, the titular tyrant and ruthless ruler of the fictitious Tomainia. It’s a comedic performance pitched to perfection by Chaplin; he hilariously captures Hitler’s demagogic style of speech-making through grandly exaggerated gesticulations, and reduces the Autocrat’s authoritarian attitudes to farce.
In his second lead role meanwhile, as an amnesic Jewish barber who returns from the frontline following the end of the First World War to discover that his suburb has been turned into a Jewish ghetto governed by stormtroopers, Chaplin tenderly confronted the fears felt by those faced with life under fascist rule. Though detrimentally overlong & too liberally sprinkled with sillier scenes of slapstick, it’s in these scenes that Chaplin was able to instil an honest & quiet poignancy that pervades the entire piece with emotional depth.
Chaplin drew many of the film’s parodic inspirations from the ideas and beliefs put forth in Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. This is sharp satire that’s grounded in reality, crafted through shrewd observation, and delivered with a stout defiance. By design, it’s intended to make you both laugh & wince simultaneously. The standout sequence, which sees Hynkel dance around his office accompanied by a balloon of the globe, captures this flawlessly; it’s as comical as it is chilling.
After the War, Chaplin said that he would not have made the film had he known the horrific reality of Hitler’s Concentration Camps. And certainly, a cynic could condemn Chaplin for making entertainment out of the evocation of evil. But to do so would be ignorant, for what Chaplin actually made was something characteristically emotive and exceptionally funny.
Director: Charles Chaplin
Writer: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie
Runtime: 125 mins