Everybody knows Charlie Chaplin, his Tramp with the oversized trousers, the tight jacket, black bowler hat and bamboo walking cane is one of the icons of the cinema of the 20th century, but how many people, especially the young ones, have actually seen one of his films? Chaplin’s filmography lists 80 films, The Great Dictator (1940) was his first all-talking, all-sound film, his most highly praised and commercially his most successful.
Here Chaplin plays a double role, an unnamed Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel, the fascist dictator of Tomania, who are the spitting images of each other; because of misunderstandings they are taken for each other and the Jewish barber has to deliver a political speech in Hynkel’s place. This is the plot in a nutshell but what do we understand from these few lines? Nothing, I’m afraid.
The film begins during WW1, an unnamed Jewish barber, a private in the army of the fictional nation of Tomania, rescues an officer named Schultz, they crash their plane into a tree, Schultz escapes from the wreckage, the Jewish barber loses his memory and spends the next 20 years in an asylum oblivious to the political changes taking place in his homeland.
There Adenoid Hynkel has become the ruthless dictator persecuting Jews, aided by his ministers Garbitsch (Henry Daniell) and Herring (Billy Gilbert). He plans the invasion of Osterlich, Benzino Napaloni (Jack Oakie), dictator of Bacteria, opposes him as he wants Osterlich for himself but Hynkel outsmarts him. (You will have worked out by now that Tomania stand for Germany, Bacteria for Italy and Osterlich for Austria, the names are easy to decipher when you’ve got so far).
The barber leaves the hospital and returns to his house in the Jewish ghetto only to find storm troopers rampaging, he doesn’t understand a thing and starts arguing with them, a young woman from the neighbourhood (Paulette Godard, then Chaplin’s wife) tries to protect him from his own innocence. Schultz can save him for a while but when he falls out with Hynkel, he and the barber are sent to a concentration camp. From here on the curricula vitae of the barber and Hynkel mix – with a grotesque outcome.
Chaplin got the idea for the film when a friend pointed out that his screen persona of the tramp and Adolf Hitler looked somewhat similar, especially the tramp’s moustache made him resemble Hitler, they were roughly of the same height and even of the same age Chaplin being only four days older. When Chaplin learnt from friends in Europe of Hitler’s policies of racial oppression and nationalist aggression, he decided to use the similarities to mock Hitler in a satirical film.
Although Chaplin had retired’ the Tramp in his previous film Modern Times, the Jewish barber reminds us of him not only because of his outfit, but because he is also a simpleton with a good heart who experiences hard times but keeps his chin up. There are definite slapstick moments, for example when his friend Hannah hits a storm trooper on his head with a frying pan and also him by mistake and they both careen and shamble along the pavement or when the barber shaves a customer in time to a radio broadcast of Johannes Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.5 – a wonderful scene which will stay in my mind!
Adenoid Hynkel is a different calibre, of course, Chaplin plays him as a childish, vain and manipulable madman. Childish: when Benzino Napaloni (Mussolini, of course) visits him, the two dictators get into an argument as to who would invade and occupy Osterlich, it doesn’t take long until they throw food at each other. Vain: in a room beside Hynkel’s office two artists, a painter and a sculptor, work on his portraits, whenever he’s got a minute to spare, he rushes in, poses and then rushes out again. Manipulable: Hynkel doesn’t seem to be able intellectually to decide anything related to politics, he’s a puppet in the hands of Garbitsch (pronounced like garbage and meant to resemble Gbbels)
Adenoid Hynkel: How wonderful! Tomania, a nation of blue-eyed blondes.
Garbitsch: Why not a blonde Europe, Asia, America?
Adenoid Hynkel: Blonde world . . .
Garbitsch: And a brunette dictator.
Adenoid Hynkel: Dictator of the world!
Maybe the best-known scene follows this dialogue, my husband and I saw the film the first time more than 30 years ago but hadnt forgotten it: Hynkel is alone in his palatial office and takes a big globe out of its rack, it turns out to be a balloon with which he performs an elegant dance moving round and across his furniture, fondling and kicking it up and down with his body accompanied by Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin Overture. This scene alone makes the film worth watching, it is a real gem!
Mad: Hynkel’s madness is obvious right from the start from the way he delivers his public speeches. Chaplin studied all available newsreels, he didn’t understand German, he only studied them for Hitler’s oratory style and he’s indeed superb at imitating it, he shouts, yells, roars until he’s hoarse, then he drinks some water. In one scene he pulls the belt away from his belly and pours some onto his private parts, I don’t know if this is meant merely as a gag, I thought it was a tiny but profound gesture indicating the erotic element inherent in Hitler’s performances (German women bore children for the Fhrer’!).
The language of Hynkel’s speeches is pure gibberish with only a handful of German words (Sauerkraut, Wiener Schnitzel, Leberwurst, Blitzkrieg) interspersed. Chaplin obviously had a better eye than ear, superb as he was at imitating Hitler’s oratory style he couldn’t imitate the intonation of the German language, for German ears this gibberish doesn’t sound German at all (Im sure you wouldnt notice J). It could have done, though, there are artists who’re able to imitate the sound of a language without knowing it, from afar one thinks they can speak it, from nearby one understands they can’t.
The highpoint of the whole film is the last speech when the Jewish Barber addresses millions of Germans as their Fhrer Hynkel, it lasts over five minutes! It transports the story of the film into fairy tale land and I can’t but think, “If only . . .”. Its content was partly responsible for the fact that Chaplin wasn’t allowed to enter the US of A during the McCarthy era, it was seen as leftist propaganda. Well, propaganda it is, but leftist?
Chaplin prepared the story throughout 1938 and 1939, and began filming in September 1939, one week after the beginning of WWII. The film was a success right from the start in 1940 although the USA was still at peace with Nazi Germany then. Later Chaplin confessed that he wouldn’t have been able to make such jokes about the Nazi regime had he known about the actual extent of the Nazi horrors.
Together with Ernst Lubitsch’s film “To Be Or Not To Be” on the same subject – a satire on Hitler and Nazi Germany – this film has written film history. Hitler banned it in Germany and in all countries occupied by the Nazis, yet he had a print brought in and screened it twice, Chaplin said, “I’d give anything to know what he thought of it.”