Charles in Charge

Ara H. Merjian on Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator

Charles Chaplin, The Great Dictator, 1940, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 125 minutes.

“LEAVE ME, I WANT TO BE ALONE.” Thus growls a sullen Hitler to one of his attendants in an original trailer for Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940). Slithering down from an unlikely perch high up on a curtain, Der Führer proceeds to stalk an outsize globe, eyeing it greedily and portentously, in lone contemplation of his imminent world dominion. The globe turns out to be a balloon, affording Chaplin some highly amusing pantomime. He bounces and spins it in a comical allegory of arrogant control, until the object pops in his face. The prelude to Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin underscores the mood and the message—and attests to Chaplin’s affinity, shared with Hitler himself, for Wagner’s operas.

Chaplin’s first sound film, The Great Dictator also constituted his most successful commercial venture. He not only wrote, produced, and directed the movie, but also starred in double roles: as both an anonymous Jewish barber and the eponymous tyrant—Adenoid Hynkel—for whom the former is mistaken. The film is perhaps best recalled for the barber’s final speech—an elegy both personal and existential, a mournful dirge and a cautionary homily (“Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed . . . ”). Yet if any other scene stands out as strikingly, it is Hynkel’s nonsensical harangue before his minions. Real German words and names—“sauerkraut” and “schnitzel” among them—punctuate a stream of gibberish to no grammatical end. By further inflating Hitler’s over-the-top oratory, Chaplin aimed to deflate his still-exotic menace. A Mussolini-like character, the voluble “Benzino Napaloni”—along with the satirized pageantry of Fascist propaganda—rounds out the film’s send-up of totalitarianism.

Such menace would soon form anything but the stuff of slapstick. Chaplin is said to have later regretted the film’s release, in light of the atrocities to which it only alludes. Still, the rather hackneyed association of freakish eccentricity and megalomaniacal despotism finds, in Chaplin’s work, an incisive parody—one that originated, in part, from the actor’s own physical similarity to the great dictator. The US was still officially at peace with Germany at the time of the film’s debut. Humorous or not, it represented a political intervention, for which Chaplin was criticized by German sympathizers at home. To be sure, the film ventures a broad-strokes diagnosis of the world’s ills, unabashedly humanist in its bright-eyed defiance. Yet given the continued proliferation of dictators on the world stage, and the courage of those still daring to topple them, Chaplin’s film may teach us something yet.

The Great Dictator is now available on DVD and Blu-ray through the Criterion Collection.