Charlie Chaplin speaks to the world even today with his satirical take on Hitler’s fascist regime in a 1940’s film that was banned in England and America during its release. The Great Dictator pin-points to an important time in history that is truly timeless and non-neglectable.
Chaplin takes a well known cinematic cliche of playing a double role and puts a spin on it and elevates it to an evocative and connective tale of a notorious world leader and a simple barber. All this and much more, done with ease, eclectic comic timing and layered narrative.
The Great Dictator deals with a Jewish Barber who has amnesia and after returning 20 years later to his shop and home realises that it has been turned to a place called ‘Ghetto’ under Tomainia’s tyrannical dictator Adenoid Hynkel’s rule, who has employed Aryan troops. The catch though, is the fact that the Jewish Barber and Hynkel look identical. Chaplin’s genius carries off this cliche to connect two ideologies prevalent in the film. One, representing the common people’s thoughts and fears during the tyrannical rule through the barber and other, a dictator’s thought process in suppressing his people at the time. What is genius is that his creative decision to make these two people with such different thinking look the same is intelligent, hysterical and ironic at the same time. In fact, the opening credits of the film is followed by a title card tha says, “Hynkel the dictator and the Jewish Barber is purely coincidental!”
If it is not clear yet, Chaplin clearly resembled Adolf Hitler and his anti-semitic government in every sense of the word, through the film. Even though the film is far from the subtleties of portraying that world, there are many interesting instances he chooses to showcase Hitler’s rule. He does this through symbols, names and scenes. For instance, he changes the Nazi swastik symbol chosen by Hitler to a double cross in the film. It is ironic because the shape of this symbol reminds us of the swastik (you can simply interchange and join the lines of the double cross and it will look like the swastik) into the and he plants this idea and connection in our heads way before, just through the other narrative devices.
Another important detail is the names used in the film. It sounds comical but there is something very reflective of the scenario of the world during a dictatorial regime in the usage of these names. For example, the name Bacteria was used to represent Germany’s neighboring state, Italy. He quite literally used the name ‘Garbage’ (Garbitch) to depict a person of the same nature. Or even, ‘Phooey’ which was used to refer to the Fuhrer, who was infamously known to execute the Jews during the World War.
Thirdly, Chaplin’s portrayal of Hynkel generously took inspiration from Hitler’s antics. There are several scenes in the film to depict that. Some of them that stand out are, the first speech that he makes as the leader, wherein he almost speaks in a German gibberish introducing his ideologies to the world. The people's reaction to his speech is them raising one hand with an open palm in support and unison. It is oddly similar to how Hitler’s supporters would greet each other and praise him while saying ‘Heil Hitler’. Interestingly, this phrase and action was used in a film called Jojo Rabbit by Taika Waititi to represent the same.
Another scene is where Hynkel is dancing his way through a ballet song in his office, carelessly swaying balloon shaped like the globe in his hands. A visual metaphor to him dreaming of ruling over the world. Many people thought this to be a prediction of what Hitler was actually able to achieve through World War I and the possibility of the second World War. It is also representative of the madness tyranny entailed through this simple yet powerful scene, in the film, in the mind of a dictator and in the world .
The final speech, however, stands out in the film, in all aspects of the word. It all begins with people confusing the barber to be Hynkel, who then later goes on to deliver this speech in front of the world. To Hynkel’s nightmare and unlike his ideologies at the time, this speech turns out to be a plea for peace, harmony and unity in order to end the oppression. Chaplin delivers the speech as the barber, common public, and more importantly himself to remind everyone as to why he had made this film despite all the tumult and criticism. All while delivering it in the same bold and powerful tone, same antics and gestures as used by Hynkel while speaking to the public. All while maintaining the integrity and vulnerability of the speech. Chaplin, once again excels as an actor as he chillingly resembles the way Hitler used to speak to the public and keeps cutting away from it to show the calmness and somberness required.
“Then - in the name of democracy - let us use that power - let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world - a decent world that will give men a chance to work - that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will!”
- Charlie Chaplin, in the final speech of The Great Dictator
The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s first film with dialogue, critics, satirizes and attempts to give an in-depth ideological thinking of the two worlds during the 1940’s, all at the same time. This film is reminiscent of all his other films that deal with the slapstick, satirical aspect of life on the surface but is that much more layered and complex, when one puts the former aside. The ease with which he connects the inner conflict of the common public and constantly connects it to the larger social and political scenario of that time in this masterpiece, is truly unparalleled.