Notes on The Great Dictator

I’ve probably seen Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) at least a dozen times, but folks, watching it last weekend for the wildly popular Michael and Us podcast—my first viewing during the Trump era—I gotta admit, there were three moments that moved me alarmingly close to tears.

The first: in the fictional European nation of Tomania during the interwar period, a Jewish barber (Chaplin, more or less reprising the Tramp), returns to the Ghetto after years in hospital. He suffers amnesia, does not realize how much time has passed, and is unaware of the rise of the fascist, anti-Semitic dictator Adenoid Hynkel (also Chaplin). As he’s wiping “JEW” off his front window, he is harassed by a stormtrooper, who demands he paint it back on. Comic shenanigans ensue, with paint being thrown, heads being conked with frying pans, etc. The scene is not much different than the Little Tramp’s encounters with the police in any of Chaplin’s silent films, but here, the police are Nazi stormtroopers, and the sight of Charlie running past a street of shops marked “JEW” means that horrifying reality has infiltrated Chaplin’s innocent universe. That reality becomes overwhelming in the scene’s climax, when a crowd of stormtroopers string the barber up a streetlamp—and are stopped in the nick of time by the unlikely appearance of the barber’s old war comrade, now a high-ranking member of the Hynkel administration.

The second: in order to attain financing for his military from a Jewish banker, Hynkel has ordered his stormtroopers to lay off the Ghetto. When the deal goes sour, Hynkel orders a Kristallnacht-like pogrom. Meanwhile, the barber and Hannah (Paulette Goddard) step out for a date and make it halfway down the block when Hynkel’s voice erupts from loudspeakers—raving in Gemanic gibberish about “da Juden.” The streets quickly empty, leaving just the barber and Hannah. The barber rushes back, but then stops, and pathetically insists that he’s going to stay and fight. Little Charlie has been outsmarting bullies for over 25 years, but this time, we know he won’t be able to come out on top.

The third: the final speech, in which Chaplin basically discards the barber and Hynkel personas to address the camera as himself. There is no shortage of people who will tell you the scene doesn’t work. In his 2007 review, Roger Ebert wrote: “It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now. It is fatal when Chaplin drops his comic persona, abruptly changes the tone of the film, and leaves us wondering how long he is going to talk (a question that should never arise during a comedy). The movie plays like a comedy followed by an editorial.” Maybe so, but how else could a comedy about ethnic nationalism released one year into the Second World War have ended? To his credit, Chaplin doesn’t tie up any loose ends: we don’t see how Hynkel’s administration reacts to the speech, and we don’t see the barber reunited with Hannah. He allows us only a vague, guarded, and open-ended optimism.

As a historical document, The Great Dictator achieves a lot of its power from its touching naiveté: from Chaplin’s hope that his fame and artistry could be a match for Hitler, and from the film’s naïve use of words and phrases like “ghetto,” “concentration camp,” and “wipe out the Jews” before the world really knew what those terms entailed. And watching it now, a lot of the film’s power comes from its shocking earnestness. This is a film where the barber—the indefatigable Charlie—watches the Stormtroopers destroy his home, and can only muster sadly, “There goes the barbershop.” Chaplin is not afraid to make a direct emotional appeal.

Needless to say, The Great Dictator cuts a little closer to the bone with Trump as president. Some of these thoughts were stirred by the positive reception that greeted Trump’s State of the Union address: no less than Van Jones—liberal CNN commentator and erstwhile member of #TheResistance—praised Trump’s tribute to a Navy SEAL who died in the botched Yemen raid. According to Jones, it was not simply “one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics, period,” but also the moment that Trump “became president of the United States.” (Note: Trump was, in fact, the sitting president of the United States when he ordered the Yemen raid.) An alarming number in the media are fine with Trump’s message as long as he reads it from a teleprompter and isn’t surrounded by a bunch of rural poors.

Chaplin spends a lot of the movie poking fun at Hitler’s most cartoonish attributes—his vanity, his hyperbolic oratorical style, his flaccid salute, his rivalry with Mussolini—but the fulcrum of his attack is on Hitler’s racism. This separates Chaplin from most of the American anti-Hitler propaganda that would follow, and also, I think, from most of our current-day satirical attacks on Donald Trump. Every Sunday my Twitter feed is full of liberals gushing over Alec Baldwin’s latest SNL appearance (this is a show that will let Trump host, and then reposition itself as America’s bastion of satire, depending on whichever brand is more marketable that week), but too much of the satire is based simply on optics. It’s one thing to go after a tyrant for “sullying the dignity of the office,” but it’s harder to make people care about his most vulnerable targets. One of the most amazing things about The Great Dictator is that Chaplin self-financed a satire of Hitler in which the beloved Little Tramp is a Jew.

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