Political satire is important. Its power is obvious, and, decade after decade, satirical films manage to shake the foundation beneath the people and subjects they jest. Think about The Interview (2014), Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s satire about assassinating Kim Jong-un, which spawned such paranoia in the North Korean government even before the film's release. Think about the Cold War, satirized by Kubrick’s black comedy classic Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), a film now preserved in the United States National Film Registry. And of course, think about The Great Dictator (1940), Charlie Chaplin’s first true talking picture which took jabs at history’s most prolific terror by outwardly mocking him. It’s quite possibly the most daring and poignant political satire in cinema, and the one to which all its successors owe a debt. It’s perfectly executed slapstick set against the greatest atrocity in world history.
The Great Dictator took Chaplin’s beloved Little Tramp character and transitioned his goofiness into terror. Chaplin's unique observational eye cut to the root of one of the world’s worst people when he was still in his early days of destruction. Born just four days apart, Chaplin and Hitler had similar looks, and Chaplin’s Tramp character with decades of renown in silent films, though not technically portrayed in the film, made a beautiful transition to talking political satire. The world was yet ignorant to the scope of Hitler’s menace when the film was being produced and shot (he hadn’t even invaded Poland yet when Chaplin began writing the script in 1938), and that proved to be a good thing. Chaplin said he may not have been able to do the film if he understood the true depth of evil he was satirizing.
Hollywood was hesitant to produce anti-Hitler propaganda. United States involvement in the war in 1940 was still a tumultuous concept. The Hays Code in place even deemed anti-Nazi films to be in violation of American's neutrality stance and advised against their creation. But Chaplin didn’t care. He had an important point to make, and found a way to make it. His films had always been about people -- about regular, everyday, sensible folks getting the opportunities they deserved and fighting against injustice. The absurdity of Hitler’s concept of a “master race” and the generally pompous nature of diplomats shouting, posturing, and needing to be heard was conceptually insane to him. Thus, with Chaplin's own money funding the film, The Little Tramp lost the hat and cane and gained a voice: one that he used to transform Hitler into Adenoid Hynkel, aka “The Phooey,” dictator of Tomania and leader of the “double-cross.” Countering the character was a Jewish barber, also played by Chaplin, who suffered a bout of amnesia after a World War I plane crash that rendered him unaware of his physical similarity to the dictator. Hilarity and precedent-setting satire ensue.
The film has a chair-pumping competition to see which diplomat could sit higher than the other. There's a fantastic scene of the Jewish barber shaving a man in rhythm with Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5. The Great Dictator also features a beautifully constructed ballet between Hynkel and a floating globe balloon, whimsically mocking his aspirations of world domination.
The Fadeout writes that Chaplin "creates a Hitler/Hynkel who speaks in German-sounding gibberish, occasionally throwing in recognizable words like 'sauerkraut.' In Hynkel’s opening scene, he gives a long-winded speech full of vitriol, which is translated by an off-screen voice. Hynkel yells, 'Democrazie schtrunk!' Then the voice over says, 'Democracy is fragrant.' The crowd cheers uproariously. Hynkel raises a hand and the sound is cut off.”
The Great Dictator was the start of Chaplin’s “dangerously” outspoken films. He would be soon labeled a communist, constantly red-baited in the press, and investigated by HUAC in the early days of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. In 1947 he released Monsieur Verdoux, a film wherein he played a serial wife murderer who saw himself akin to world leaders. It so irked conservatives and HUAC that he was denied re-entry to the United States after 1952, living out his days in Switzerland, only returning to the USA once to receive an honorary Academy Award in 1972, five years before his death.
Chaplin welcomed it all on himself. After The Great Dictator, due to his performance as the Jewish barber, in addition to his real-life Jewish wife and half-brother, he was labeled a Jew by right-wingers despite not being one. He didn’t correct the media. Chaplin was the biggest star in the world at the time, and he believed people thinking he was Jewish would only further the rhetorical power of his satire if he belonged to the world’s most oppressed race.
Vue Weekly notes, “Chaplin remained prescient and circumspect enough to make a comedy lashing out at a tragedy’s progenitor, taking the failed artist-turned-genocidal-tyrant seriously enough to mock him on-screen. (Chaplin realized that stonily self-serious right-wingers tend to hate, most of all, people laughing at them.) From the 21st century’s first celebrity and cinema’s first great comic visionary, this was a feat of artistic ambition and bravery, in the face of a brutal fascist nightmare, that hasn’t been matched since in commercial movie-making.”
The final speech in The Great Dictator, given by the Jewish barber mistaken to be Hynkel, is Chaplin using his literal cinematic voice for the first time to directly speak to the themes and messages of his films. It’s not really Hynkel or the barber talking; it’s Chaplin on a soapbox, in all his audacity for the human spirit, professing one of history’s most eloquent and powerful dialogues about the virtues of peace and integrity. Unfortunately, it’s timelessly applicable and strikes an emotional chord in 2015 as well as 1940. It encapsulates the awareness Chaplin’s satire endlessly tried to raise. It’s a plea for human decency and understanding. And it’s one of the most regarded speeches in cinema.
The backing music as Chaplin speaks is Wagner’s Lohengrin, the same tune heard earlier in the film when Hynkel dances with the balloon version of Earth, choreographing his takeover of the world (Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer). There’s a potent parallel between Hynkel’s dreams of universal empire and Chaplin’s universal humanity. Hynkel’s balloon eventually pops, after all, and Chaplin’s legacy lives on.