The 1940 release of Charlie Chaplin’s absurdist Nazi satire The Great Dictator was a cinematic event like no other: an influential work of anti-isolationist agitprop, a mythical embodiment of the culture war between democracy and Fascism, and a deeply personal grudge match between Chaplin and Hitler.
Hollywood films of the 1930s had largely avoided the political situation in Europe. America had not yet entered the war and the Production code officially forbade antagonizing “friendly” nations. With a bare-knuckled Nazi-baiting scenario no studio would touch, The Great Dictator was bankrolled by Chaplin himself. That the budget ballooned to over two million dollars is one not-so-small measure of how deeply invested he was in the subject. Nazi censors had banned his last two films and attacked the director in the infamous Der ewige Jude, a rogues gallery of the world’s most dangerous Jews. That Chaplin was actually a gentile was beside the point: in the eyes of an Aryan nationalist, the comedian’s cosmopolitanism and identification with the downtrodden were the essence of Semitic subversion. Having been called a parasite on society, Chaplin was eager to return the compliment.
In what was his very first speaking performance, Chaplin plays dual roles: a guileless but gutsy Jewish barber and “der Phooey” Adenoid Hynkel, the Great Dictator himself. In the parallel stories of the Everyman and Übermensch, the film oscillates between a heart-tugging celebration of common goodness and a ruthless evisceration of elitist folly. The tonal shifts are abrupt and, yes, not always successful. The film is often dismissed as “uneven,“ which in some ways it is. On at least one level, the production is a textbook example of auteurist excess: by my calculations the film cost more money, minute for minute, than Gone With the Wind, which is shocking when one considers how little of the palatial production design actually registers. Chaplin was no Leni Riefenstahl and his visualization of Fascism was somewhat less than fascinating. And yes, Chaplin’s brotherhood-of-man politics are often naïve (you may notice his symbolic displacement of Hebrew with Esperanto in the Jewish ghetto scenes) and his affirmations of humanity are often excessively on the nose (every time the miscast Paulette Goddard raises her eyes to the heavens and launches on some “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all get along?” monologue…). But the film is shot through with moments of unadulterated comic genius that run like veins of gold in a craggy rock face: an absurdly unsuccessful airplane escape; a nonsense-speech satire of the awful German language and Hitler’s convulsive oratorical style; a set piece of absurdly gossamer lyricism in which der Phooey dances around his office with a balloon globe, dreaming of imperial domination (“aut Ceasar, aut nullus”) only to have the world explode in his face—and ours.
Chaplin was perhaps the only pre-war filmmaker to have been embraced by both mass audiences and the avant garde. That this universally adored director would eventually spark a backlash was inevitable, cyclical as the course of art history is, and The Great Dictator is often singled out amongst his masterpieces in order to highlight his directorial shortcomings (a tendency towards bathos, structural sloppiness, technical atavism, etc). But to shrug off the brilliance in The Great Dictator with some nitpicky criticism of its technique or its structure is such a vacuously pedantic response that I’m amazed it still passes for sophistication. It reminds me of a scene in the film where an inventor, donning a full-body silk suit that he believes is bullet proof, hands der Phooey a gun and volunteers to demonstrate. When Chapln shoots the man and he promptly falls dead, he’s so focused on the mechanics of the moment that the human drama before him completely fails to register. “Far from perfect!” he shouts with contempt.
Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good—or for that matter, the Great.
December 25-31 at IFC Center