The Great Dictator

In the late 1930s, as a little man named Adolf Hitler prepared the fearsome German army to run roughshod over the country’s European neighbours, Charles Chaplin, one of the greatest of all film artists, responded to the threat of war in the only way that made sense: He prepared a new comedy, The Great Dictator, that mocked Hitler directly. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine Chaplin could have done anything else. Ignoring Hitler was already out of the question. The similarities between Chaplin and the Nazi leader were often remarked upon, including by Chaplin himself. For one thing, they obviously shared the same moustache. (More than coincidence?) They were born within the same four-day period in April 1889. They both grew up in poverty, and there were superficial similarities in their sensibility–Hitler was a frustrated artist and, like Chaplin, a fan of Wagner. Chaplin’s son famously remembered his father saying, “Just think, he’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.”

Knowing that Chaplin was dogged by such thoughts helps explain his decision not only to play the dictator Adenoid Hynkel, but also to cast himself in a second role as a shy, soft-spoken Jewish barber who finds himself harassed and imprisoned under Nazi rule in the 1930s. The Great Dictator is, on the whole, a gentle and witty film that plays sophisticated visual gags alongside more boisterous comic business. For American audiences of the time, this stuff might have seemed riotously funny (and patriotic to boot). For contemporary viewers, there’s an added tension that comes from knowing what was really at stake in those years. The comic was standing up to the madman, yes, but had he known the full measure of Hitler’s madness–the ovens, the showers, the boxcars full of corpses–he could hardly have made the same movie. That makes watching The Great Dictator a bit of a dissonant experience, albeit a precious one.

The barber is a clear analogue to Chaplin’s tramp character, though the picture’s opening comic gambit is sobering, presenting his famous undercranked antics in the context of a World War I battlefield, cannons blazing, explosions rocking the landscape. The film opens with the camera tracking elegantly, endlessly, from left to right until finally bringing into frame a ridiculously long-barrelled version of Germany’s Big Bertha howitzer. The gun’s design, accentuating the presence of cogs and pistons, directly recalls the giant assembly-line machine from Modern Times, and Chaplin’s view of this alleged marvel was similarly dim. It proves useful only for blowing up an outhouse and then farting out a failed mortar-turd.

This prologue furthers the plot in one useful way: Chaplin’s character rescues a wounded fighter pilot who will, years later, become one of Hynkel’s confidantes and use his station to protect the erstwhile soldier’s Jewish neighborhood. It also dramatizes one of Chaplin’s complaints against Hitler, which is that his persecution of the Jews represents not just bitter racism but also a betrayal of his very countrymen, many thousands of whom helped defend the Fatherland in the 1910s. Chaplin was not a Jew (though the Nazi propaganda machine addressed him as if he were), but he was acutely aware of the despair among the Jewish community. It inspired a sadness that permeates The Great Dictator. It’s the feeling the film gravitates towards, no matter how funny the jokes are.

Chaplin gets from the aftermath of World War I to the run-up to World War II by employing a montage of newspaper headlines as a gloss on history–in only a few seconds of screen time, the Great Depression takes hold, wallops the Weimar Republic, and helps propel the Nazi party to power. Chaplin, no doubt self-conscious of his debut in a full talkie (after attempting to keep the sound era at bay with the mostly-silent Modern Times), bursts onto screen in Hynkel garb and orates furiously in a sort of angry pig-German that consists of high-decibel barking and guttural emphasis along with the occasional shouted culinary aside–something about wiener schnitzel, something about beer, something about sauerkraut. Chaplin has great fun taking the sting out of Hitler’s words, as when a hilariously mild-mannered translator revoices an obviously frightening polemic in the most polite terms imaginable or, later, when a secretary takes dictation of his hyperextended German phraseology with a bare minimum of keystrokes, then types up a storm when Hynkel’s remarks are curt. Mainly, Chaplin seeks to strip Hitler’s shtick of its power by exposing him as a cheap demagogue with a boner for the sound of his own voice, dumping ice water down his pants to cool off his inflamed rhetoric. And having him pratfall down a flight of stairs puts him in his place as a clown–a man of no seriousness and little gravity.

Chaplin’s sentimental heart is with the Jewish barber, who escapes the hospital bed after a 20-year convalescence, blissfully unaware of the turmoil at home. So eagerly does he fall into his old daily routine that he completely–unimaginably!–fails at first to notice the word “JEW” painted across the boarded windows. When he decides to clean up the mess, slapstick antics ensue as some incredulous local stormtroopers (who sound more like Brooklyn toughs) start to rough him up. Only the timely intervention of Paulette Goddard and a heavy frying pan saves the barber’s life. “I’ll call a policeman,” he says. “Are you crazy?” she responds, dragging him safely from the scene before more authorities arrive.

That’s how The Guy finds The Girl in this upside-down world. The “meet cute” is a long-standing building block of romantic comedy, but it doesn’t point an easy way forward for Chaplin’s film. Sentimentalist or not, Chaplin knew his story could not have a happy ending, boy and girl strolling together into the sunset. He struggled to achieve closure as the great nations of Europe fell to the Nazi war machine. As it turns out in the end, The Girl is in exile from her home country while The Guy has, improbably, switched places with The Great Dictator himself. Given the opportunity to speak in Hynkel’s stead, Chaplin’s barber steps up to the podium, where he breaks character completely, allowing Chaplin to deliver an impassioned plea to his audience. “We are coming into a new world,” he declares, “a kind new world where men will rise above their hate and brutality.”

While it’s an odd, jarring gambit, it’s just another tonal shift in a film that’s distractingly episodic, swinging abruptly between its twin storylines and packing ever more into its critique of Fascism. By the time the dominating Jack Oakie showed up, packing a riotous impersonation of Mussolini in his hip pocket that earned him an Oscar nomination, I was already exhausted. The kitchen-sink approach is wearying, even when Chaplin is doing the dishes.

Yet from set-piece to set-piece, in the best of its shimmering vignettes and its most poignant frozen moments, The Great Dictator is tremendous. Think of the film’s single most enduring image, of Hynkel dancing tenderly, ridiculously, with a blow-up globe. The world he longs to conquer is seen in fragile miniature, the shiny toy of any pubescent boy’s desires. Der Führer is depicted here as not only emotionally stunted but sexually immature, too. He bats the inflatable plastic planet ceiling-ward with a reverse-thrust of his ass, the virgin schoolboy pushing his hips skyward in an innocent burlesque. In the end, of course, the balloon-planet pops and Hynkel is stricken, like an oafish boy who killed a beloved pet by squeezing it too hard. It’s a simple parody, but an astonishingly graceful and confident one.

The barber’s story works in counterpoint to the broad comedy of Hynkel’s scenes. It has fine comic interludes–like the dinner scene in which one Jew at the table will be chosen for a suicide mission based on their selection of a pudding with a coin baked into it–but also moments of surpassing sadness that match anything in Chaplin’s oeuvre. The film’s most moving image emerges as the barber, seen from behind, sits on a rooftop at night, watching the community he loved burn several stories below. Hannah (Goddard’s character) tries to comfort him, but you sense he’s inconsolable. Faced with the heartless severity of his too-modern times, the little tramp has been wrecked.

The Great Dictator communicates so much in the small, strong voice of such a unique artist that it’s hard to begrudge his going all preachy in the final reel. Chaplin’s ending was rewritten as France fell to Hitler’s army. The world was collapsing around him; the centre could not hold, etc. Chaplin’s flourish calls back fondly to the silent era, when grand gestures were part and parcel with florid, morally insistent storytelling. It even goes the Third Reich one better, proposing an equally expert, but humanist, alternative to the finely-honed Nazi misinformation industry. Under the circumstances, I can forgive him some mush-mouthed exhortations about our arrival in the light of hope–he was neither the first nor the last auteur to imagine that a motion picture could somehow hold the line against the horrors of war. (In fact, Abel Gance had recently remade his own 1919 film, J’accuse, in the futile hope of preventing World War II, and Jean Renoir presumably had something similar in mind with Grand Illusion.)

Sadly, that speech marked the beginning of the end for Chaplin in the U.S., given that certain political factions heard in his impassioned intonations a dog whistle meant to raise the ears of Communist sympathizers. They went after him, and were eventually successful. What’s dispiriting in the context of the film is that the speech is just not of a piece with the cool, measured mockery of The Great Dictator‘s best scenes. Put simply, Chaplin was panicking. For the Nazis, watching Chaplin parody Hitler’s rhetorical tactics and systematically diminish his ambitions may have been humiliating. But seeing him sweat? That might have been empowering.

Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of The Great Dictator isn’t what you’d call pristine. The 1.33:1 transfer is generally crisp and detailed, with solid blacks and robust dynamic range across the entire greyscale. (Under these conditions, it’s easy to spot Chaplin’s occasional uses of rear-projection.) Some portions of the film do have a softer, mildly washed-out appearance. The restoration notes indicate that Criterion was working with at least two different sources (a fine-grain interpositive and a dupe negative), which would help explain those disparities. Grain and other high-frequency details are generally visible in every shot, although some of them seem to have been worked over pretty thoroughly by DVNR algorithms. Print damage is still apparent, including some sections where disparities in image density from frame to frame induce a distracting flicker effect across large portions of the screen. I don’t mean to complain too much–it’s probable that a peek at the state of the original elements would reveal this imperfect rendition as a minor miracle, and I’ll take even fairly serious film damage as a hedge against a plastic, overly processed BD image any day.

Criterion has done itself proud in the audio department. The Great Dictator boasts a robust, 24-bit uncompressed monaural soundtrack–as robust as films from 1940 get, anyway–derived from the original sound negative. Again, the trick is to clean up the audio as much as possible, minimizing noise without jettisoning the sonic detail that gives a film’s soundtrack its character. The result here is a lively, almost hissless track.

Supplementary material is plentiful, starting with a tag-team yakker recorded by Chaplin experts Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran specifically for this release. They dish on Chaplin’s intentions in making The Great Dictator, outline its historical context, and analyze what’s happening on screen. In other words, it’s your standard-issue Criterion expert-commentary track, with all the informative but slightly fusty conservatism that implies. “The Tramp and the Dictator”, a 55-minute 2001 documentary (originally in SD but upconverted by Criterion to OK 1080i) from Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft, takes a close look at the parallels between the early lives of Chaplin and Hitler. Ray Bradbury, Al Hirschfeld, and Sidney Lumet are among the interviewees. Commissioned by Turner Classic Movies, it’s an engaging and welcome component of the package that has also featured on previous DVD issues of the film. Meanwhile, two new “visual essays” (basically, they’re video slideshows of photography, drawings, and the occasional clip, accompanied by voiceover) are presented in 1080p. “Chaplin’s Napoleon and The Great Dictator”, by Cecilia Cenciarelli, spends 19 minutes tracing the history of Chaplin’s unmade Napoleon project, emphasizing the ways that his unconsummated work there laid the foundation for this film. Jeffrey Vance’s “The Great Dictator: The Clown Turns Prophet” amounts to an exceptionally well-illustrated think piece on The Great Dictator and its legacy.

Nearly 27 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage shot by Chaplin’s half-brother Sydney is on board in 1080i HD, and it’s actually riveting viewing. The mere presence of colour somehow offers a whole new perspective on Chaplin and his working methods. This edition is filled out with two barbershop scenes–a five-minute scene, with piano accompaniment, that initially appeared in Sydney Chaplin’s King, Queen, Joker (1921), and a silent eight-minute scene that was cut from Charlie Chaplin’s “Sunnyside” (1919)–that prefigure comic bits in The Great Dictator. They’re each encoded in 1080i and look significantly better than OK, considering their age and status as bonus features. Finally, there’s a two-minute trailer for The Great Dictator‘s 1972 re-release (in 1080p) that finishes with an MPAA card indicating a G rating.

Noteworthy inclusions in the 28-page insert booklet are Michael Wood’s essay “The Joker and the Madman;” a reprint of Chaplin’s response to his critics, first published in The New York Time; and “What Is Known as Really Speaking,” an essay by critic and historian Jean Narboni excerpted and translated from his new book on the film, …Pourquoi les coiffeurs? Notes actuelles sur Le Dictateur.

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