Great Dictator, The

Poster
1940
Charlie Chaplin

9/10 (missing the Tramp)

This is by far the most ballsy and bad-ass Chaplin film ever made. In 1940, when the U.S. was still officially allies with Germany, and most of the world naively hoped that Hitler wasn´t actually the psychopath that he was increasingly resembling, Chaplin upped and released “The Great Dictator,” an utter artistic assault on Hitler, the Nazis, anti-semitism, and fascism. He rips all of them 18 new assholes.

Chaplin interprets two roles here, one of the Jewish amnesiac war hero barber, and the other of the insane mini-Hitler “Adenoid Hynkel.” So when he’s not spewing crazy gibberish that sounds suspiciously like various plates of German cuisine, he’s doing things like shaving a client in a frenzy in rhythm with Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5. While watching Chaplin´s Hynkel, you almost forget how subversive such a character was at that moment in time. It seems quaint to modern viewers, but the only way I can try to contextualize it is to imagine Spielberg and Jim Carrey, in 2002, teaming up to spoof the invasion of Iraq. That’s how ballsy this was.

Of course, the movie was also breathtakingly naive in the way that it portrays Hitler and Nazis as nothing more than a bunch of hapless clowns. Chaplin later stated repeatedly that had he known the full extent of the crimes that the Germans were committing against the Jews, he never could have made this film. The film ends with Chaplin’s barber impersonating the dictator and giving a moving speech about the evils of fascism. Watching it, I was blown away by the earnestness. Chaplin basically steps out of character and addresses the camera as Charlie Chaplin, begging for reasonable heads to prevail. Unfortunately, as we all know, his plea went unheeded. Regardless, it is one of the most powerful and moving moments, not only in this movie, but in movies in general.

I liked this less than his other films because, as the first film without his Tramp persona, I felt a lack of emotional connection. The Jewish barber was certainly a close stand-in for the Tramp, but it didn’t grab me the same way, and I found my attention worrying. Ultimately though, the power of the content makes up for this lack, which is why I still rank it here with the rest of his films. And it´s why you still need to see it if you haven’t already.

The following goes for all Chaplin films that will appear here. I am ashamed that it took me as long as it did to begin watching his films and appreciate him as an artist. The first movies of his that I viewed, I literally sat slack-jawed as I watched. Nothing I had seen of modern entertainers prepared me for the virtuosity of this one man. Nothing we have nowadays even approaches the level of talent that he (and IMO to a lesser extent Buster Keaton) displayed. He was an artist in the true sense of the word. Just think: the amount of talent necessary to write, direct, choreograph, invent, compose music for, and act in all of these productions staggers the imagination. Just look at the list in that last sentence. HE DID ALL OF THOSE THINGS BY HIMSELF, FOR LIKE 30 YEARS, WITH MORE THAN 20 MOVIES! I consider him on the same level as Shakespeare, Mozart and Dante for what he has done with the arts. Who living even approaches the shadow that Chaplin cast in terms of all-around entertainment value? I defy you to name even one person.

It pisses me off that he’s not better appreciated nowadays.

18 March 2010

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