Criterion Throwback Review: ‘The Great Dictator’

This essay is by our guest writer, Haden Cross.

The first time I watched The Great Dictator, it was four days after the inauguration of Donald Trump, and the only remark on that context in my Letterboxd review was that it had been a “hard day in the real world” that prompted the viewing. Eighteen months later – the timeline of political news long turned into a blur – I assumed that particular hard day was the start of the infamous travel ban. It wasn’t. That was to come three days later. The headlines from January 24th were not good by any means, but since then, the standards of what was considered notably bad had changed; the context in which I saw Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 anti-Nazi masterpiece had altered, and I was curious to see how it had held up in the meantime, and whether it would convey the specific sense of determined hope as it had in my first viewing. In the wake of the last year and a half, the way in which I related to the film shifted dramatically, from revering it as a valiant act of protest to seeing it more as a time capsule to a parallel moment in the past, an emblem of the cyclical nature of history.

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The Great Dictator does not shy away from who and what it is trying to skewer. Adenoid Hynkel’s regime in Tomainia, with its double-cross motif, assembles a visual parallel that is instantly understandable even in just a freeze-frame image. With that established, the film’s primary method of criticism is turning these stand-ins for Hitler and the Third Reich into the height of slapstick. As Hynkel, Chaplin tumbles down stairs, climbs catlike up a curtain, and throws temper tantrums that make him impossible to take seriously as an autocrat. The German language itself devolves into a world salad peppered with nonsensical sounds during the parodies of Hitler’s bombastic speeches. Much in the same way outlets like Saturday Night Live have taken potshots at the Trump administration, The Great Dictator sought to cut down power through humor, offering an image of a powerful international figure that cannot possibly earn one’s respect.

This parody of the upper echelons of the German government plays out beside a related storyline in one of the country’s Jewish ghettos. While not avoiding slapstick entirely, the scenes in the ghetto often take a more serious path in portraying marginalized life under fascism. Stormtroopers violently harass the Jewish residents, who are emboldened to fight back when a local barber – also played by Chaplin – returns from a veterans’ hospital after World War I with no knowledge of how the country has changed in his absence; the barber threatens to call the police on the stormtroopers for the harassment, unaware they are one in the same, before teaming up with his neighbor Hannah (Paulette Goddard) to incapacitate them with buckets of paint and a frying pan. The barber is able to walk into the new status quo for his people and immediately pinpoint just how wrong matters have become, reminding not only his neighbors but the contemporary audience as well. As he is never given a name, the barber acts as an everyman: the everyman that should be disturbed about the current climate; the everyman that should physically oppose enforcers of the fascist state. The persecution of the everyman is not only morally abhorrent but nonsensical because, on a certain base human level, the everyman and the despot can see each other in the mirror. The film opens noting that the resemblance between Hynkel and the barber is merely “coincidental,” but within it is couched the simplest criticism of the entire situation, the plea of how someone could do this to their fellow man if, after all, they are fundamentally the same.

Of course, The Great Dictator’s power as antifascist art of its era is limited by how early into the conflict it was made. Germany invaded Poland just before filming started on the project, and its 1940 release meant that the true horror of the Jewish experience under Hynkel’s real-life counterpart could not be taken into account, rendering the film’s portrayals of the concentration camps and the Tomainian government’s casual offhand remarks about killing the Jewish population and other demographics wildly inappropriate and offensive. Hannah imploring a group of her neighbors plotting an assassination attempt on Hynkel not to resort to killing becomes tone-deaf. Hynkel’s Minister of War, Herring (Billy Gilbert), gleefully mentioning work on a lethal poison gas becomes disturbingly prescient.

Twenty-six years after the release of the film, Chaplin stated in his autobiography that if he had known the truth of the matter, The Great Dictator would have never been made. This kind of regret, while not to the same degree, still echoes in the aftermath of the election in statements from public figures like Jimmy Fallon for his own tone-deaf treatment of Trump on his show in September 2016; similar statements from others are likely to be warranted in the future. Painting his Hitler stand-in like as an incompetent clown was an act of defiant disrespect for Chaplin, just like every parody of Trump and his ilk on current late-night talk shows, Saturday Night Live, political cartoons, and protest art, and mere days after his inauguration, I had faith in the power of that sort of criticism from the public. That Chaplin dared to mock one of the most evil men of the last century in this way struck me as courageous. On my more recent viewing, the physical comedy, though still amusing, was much more tiresome. Such blatant disrespect in wide-reaching art is still an act of defiance, but I found myself returning to the same grumbling thought: “this is funny, but it didn’t do anything.” It’s the same sentiment I have when, for example, reports tell of Londoners protesting Trump’s visit with a large balloon of him as a whining baby. “This is funny (to somebody), but it’s not going to do anything.”

As a whole, The Great Dictator is concerned with the common thread of humanity among us all; it specifically addresses this idea between the characters in the film, but that thread also stretches across nearly eighty years of time to audiences of today. Certain personal reactions of the ghetto residents to the plight of Tomainia felt as if they could have been written about modern circumstances in the eighteen-month span between my two viewings: the older Mr. Jaeckel (Maurice Moscovich) naively assuming that things can’t get worse, Hannah’s despair turning into a “live in the moment” attitude buoyed by daydreaming escapism, the misguided desire not to fight fire with fire. In the brief respite from harassment at the decree of a government official the barber saved in the war, Hannah remarks that maybe Hynkel isn’t so bad after all, only to be proven wrong seconds later when he ends the peace and sends matters spiraling even further. Moments like these did not resonate with me enough for them to even be logged in my memory after my first viewing, but now there is a strange near-comfort in the relatability, in the patterns of how people bend in these circumstances – “near-comfort” because that recognition is unnerving. The idea that the barber, mistaken for Hynkel in the film’s iconic final speech, can address relevant concerns of hatred, borders, and selfish power-grabs over such a gulf of time and through the barrier of Chaplin’s death is unnerving.

Four days into Trump’s presidency, this was less unnerving; Chaplin spoke and there was a sense of hope about the future. Leading up to the speech earlier this month, I wondered how the lens of the last year and a half would distort it in particular. “The hate of men will pass,” the barber says at one point, “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.” Men do die. Hitler died, and the specific terror of that period was able to come to a close, but the cyclical nature of history cannot be stopped by the death of a particular handful of men. The film is so interested in our inherent commonalities as human beings that to hear this remark stated as reassurance whilst living in the reality of a new rise of fascism almost feels shortsighted. “So long as men die, liberty will never perish,” but so long as men are born, the risk remains of this brand of misery recurring. While a bleak prospect, both sides of that coin in mind act together insist that closed eras do not always remain so, and that there is still room for the returned barber of an everyman to act when the axis begins to tilt.  

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