The Great Dictator

Strange, and I always thought of you as an Aryan” — Schultz, “I’m a vegetarian” — A Jewish Barber

The Great Dictator is the first true sound film written and directed by Charlie Chaplin. It’s a hilarious political comedy satirizing the fascism and the Nazi party. Chaplin plays both a Jewish barber, which has evolved from his Little Tramp character, and the fascist dictator Adenoid Hynkel. The plot involves the mistaken-identity trope as the two main characters switch places, the Jewish barber having to eventually give a hopeful speech with a powerful message of peace and unity.

The movie was released in 1940, before America joined World War II. At the time, there was no way Chaplin could know the real extent of the crimes committed by the Nazi in Jewish concentration camps, and has since expressed regret for turning such a horrible time in history into comedy. Still, it served as a propaganda piece as the war progressed, and it successfully attracted the audience with the classic and beloved feel of a Charlie Chaplin movie. While it might have seemed like he was making light of the suffering of an oppressed people, we now know that Chaplin was actually inspired to make this movie by the stories of his Jewish friends. It was also made as a reaction to Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, which was specifically satirized in Hynkel’s speech.

Naturally, his performance drew attention of the Nazis, who expressed their dissatisfaction with the movie. There are rumors that Hitler himself saw it twice. We can’t help but wonder what could have gone through his head.

Some of the unforgettable scenes, besides Hynkel’s gibberish speech (Tighten de belten!), are the scenes that are set to classical music. One of them, a scene in which Chaplin is shaving a customer, is set to Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5. It’s a fascinating example of Chaplin’s talent that it was recorded in one take, and this take was included in the movie. Another important scene is Hynkel’s dance with a globe balloon set to the prelude of Lohengrin, which is a reference to Hitler’s affinity for Wagner’s music (which is something he and Chaplin share). This scene is interrupted, but then the same theme is used during the final speech of the Jewish barber, perhaps symbolizing that this time it “deserved” to reach its climax.

The beautiful and feisty Paulette Goddard adds warmth and charm to this movie. She plays Hannah, the barber’s neighbour whom he falls in love with. She’s forced to leave her country once Hynkel orders the genocide of the Jews, but at the very end, she’s given hope with Chaplin’s “Wherever you are, look up Hannah!”

Something that Charlie Chaplin has said in his autobiography is that he was deeply troubled by the similarities between him and Adolf Hitler. Born just four days apart, one of them set out to bring forth the greatest tragedy of the modern world, while the other chose to alleviate pain with his antics. This stark contrast is at the core of his final message as the man mistaken for a dictator. Don’t hate. Use your power to help. Fight for reason, progress and happiness.

The Great Dictator mixes the dramatic plot with lighthearted humor, creating a foundation from which an anti-war message springs at the viewers. It’s permanently relevant as we as a species seem to forget to learn from our mistakes and fall into the same patterns every half a century or so. A timeless masterpiece, this movie is near the top of our must-see movies of all time.

IMDb 4.2 /5
4.2 out of 5
Rotten Tomatoes 4.6 /5
4.6 out of 5
Rogue Cinema 4.4 /5
4.4 out of 5

Combined average

4.4out of 5

4.4 out of 5
Category Comedy

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