The Great Dictator made in 1940 by Charlie Chaplin was at the time a controversial film because it exposed Nazism and anti-Semitism with both humor and horror. In his film, Chaplin plays the two main characters: Adenoid Hynkel, the tyrannical dictator of Tomania and a Jewish barber persecuted by Storm Troopers in the ghetto.
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The movie begins in 1918, at the end of the First World War. The Jewish barber is fighting on the franco-german front and in the thick of the battle, inadvertently rescues a pilot and both fly away to safety. Unfortunately, due to their catastrophic landing, the barber looses his memory of the war. Then he is released from the hospital in the late thirties and goes back to work in his barbershop in the ghetto. However, he doesn’t know that the soldiers of the Double Cross (instead of a swastika) who persecute and terrorize people are now controlling his town. At one point, he stands up to them and is almost hanged. Fortunately, by a twist of fate, the pilot whom the barber saved in the war becomes one of Hynkel’s top men and out of gratitude, orders the Storm Troopers to leave the ghetto alone. Due to his courageous act the barber wins the admiration of a pretty neighbor girl, Hannah.
Meanwhile, Hynkel demands the wealthy Jews to fund his invasion on Osterlich and when the Jews refuse, he launches an attack on the ghetto. The barber is then thrown into a concentration camp. Tomanias dictator also holds a meeting with the Dictator of Bacteria, Benzino Napaloni, to discuss the territorial situation in Osterlich. Napaloni holds troops at the border and agrees to remove them only if Hynkel signs the treaty, which he does. When the attack on Osterlich is ready to begin, the barber escapes and is mistaken for Hynkel, leading up to the final and powerful speech.
Many of the characters in the film were clearly not entirely fictional, which was one of the main objections from certain political groups in America and also of the American press. Chaplin later stated that: “Had I known of the actual horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator.
The film starts in 1918 at the end of the First World War in the trenches on the franco-german front. The soldiers helmets characterized by a spear on the top suggest that they are Germans. The main character played by Charlie Chaplin is a soldier whose role is to fire on the Cathedral of Notre Dame located in Paris with the gigantic cannon named la Grosse Bertha. At the end of the war, many new weapons had been developed such as la Grosse Bertha or the use of barbed wire as an obstacle. As it is shown in the film, barbed wire was staked in the ground usually 20 yards into the area between ones own front line and the enemys. Additionally, grenades, machine guns and planes were used to destroy the enemy. Due to these new deadly inventions, the trench warfare was the cause of many human losses during World War I.
Afterwards the action takes place in the ghetto in the late thirties. The Storm Troopers are painting the word Jew on each shop window to persecute the population and to confirm that the Jews are an inferior race. Furthermore, they rob the merchants, destroy the shops and use violence and terror to intimidate. It is obvious that there is no justice in the ghetto. When the barber stands up to two Storm Troopers, he almost gets hanged on the lamppost in public. Killing a person in public was a way for the soldiers to demonstrate the consequences of a misbehaving and it would prevent any disobedience from other individual. This event also proves that anyone could get killed for any reason.
Then the film continues with Hynkels speech where important events are mentioned such as the built up of the military strength of Tomania (which is in reality Germany). At that time, Hitler needed to create an air force and an army that would outnumber those of France, Germanys major European rival. In addition, it was imperative for him to have the most powerful navy to be able to defeat Great Britain in case of a war. Hitlers goal was to control as many countries as he could and when he invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 Germany was military, economically and politically ready to go to war against Great Britain and France.
As well as military strength, Hitler required his population to be intrepid. Claimed to a genetic superiority, the Aryan race represented the pure Germans with blue eyes and blond hair. Thus, anyone not part of this race was to be inferior and therefore despised and persecuted. Hitler particularly hated homosexuals, Jews, democrats, Gypsies and Slavs. After the war, it was discovered that these groups were to be sent to concentration camps where they were to be killed in atrocious and cruel ways.
The Third Reich headquarters in the film is the luxurious palace where Hynkel lives. New characters are involved: Herring, the Secretary of War and Garbitsch, the Secretary of Interior. In reality, they represented Goring and Goebbels, whom were closely related to Hitler. As the film displays, one of Goring roles was to research new weapons or better implements of war such as parachute, bulletproof jacket, poisonous gas and Goebbels role was to advise Hitler. Goebbels was also the Minister of Propaganda who organized Nazi political campaigns and skillfully used the mass media to further the Nazi cause. It is important to observe that the relationship between the government and the scientific researchers provided new technology and that the population enthusiasm was essential for a military victory.
One of the main events that takes place in the palace is the decision to invade Osterlich, which is in fact Austria. On that occasion, Hynkel asks the wealthy Jews to fund his invasion. It is an ironic gesture since he persecutes this race. This demand refers to a practice among European monarchs in the 17th and 18th and 19th centuries that would at times borrow the funds from Jewish bankers when they needed money to finance wars.
When the Jews refuse, Hynkel orders an attack on the ghetto and people are either fleeing to Osterlich to find peace such as Hannah or taken as prisoner and sent to concentration camps like the barber. The Great Dictator exhibits concentration camps as a place where prisoners had to act like Germans (goose-step) and then sleep in barracks. This representation is clearly seen through Chaplin’s pre-war eyes.
Later on, Hynkel finds out that Benzino Napaloni has troops on the front of Osterlich and decides to meet with him. Napaloni is the fictional character of Benito Mussolini, Italys dictator. At this point of time, Hitler wanted to invade Austria without the help from Italian troops. In the film, Napaloni agrees to remove his troops only if Hynkel signs a treaty. After a great dispute, Hynkel finally accepts to sign. In March 1938 Hitler annexed Austria to the Third Reich. The fact that Italy agreed to cooperate with Germany as the Axis Power and that it withdrew from the League of Nations in 1936 is not cited in the film.
Finally, the last speech given by Goebbels demonstrates the ideas of Nazism and the power of the propaganda. He states that no nations can progress from ideas of democracy, liberty and equality and we must therefore abolish these ideas. Also, he declares that the Jews are the enemies of the state and that their right of citizenship must be taken away from them. These claims were the real issues of the Third Reich at the beginning of World War II.
Some relevant events were not mentioned in the film. For instance, in October 1935 Mussolinis armies invaded Ethiopia and in March of 1936 Nazi troops violated the Versailles agreement and seized the Rhineland. A few month later, Hitler and Mussolini extended aid to General Francisco Franco, a fellow fascist, who was seeking to overthrow Spains republic government. These events prove that Germany was already a powerful country and that the cooperation between dictators was to be menacing for the rest of Europe.
Additionally, The Great Dictator did not expose the Munich conference in September 1938 where the leaders of France and Great Britain met with Hitler. Germanys seizure of Sudetenland in return for Hitlers promise to seek no more territory was the outcome of the conference.
Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass is an another important event not cited in Chaplins film. It happened on the night of November 9, 1938 when Joseph Goebbels carefully organized the pogrom, the devastasion of the Jews across the Reich. In two days, over 1,000 synagogues were burned, 7,000 Jewish businesses were trashed, dozens of Jewish people were killed, and Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools, and homes were looted while police and fire brigades stood by. The pogroms became known as Kristallnacht for the shattered glass from the store windows that littered the streets.
The Great Dictator is a satire of fascism. Charlie Chaplin mocks Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini on several occasions. He begins by giving them foolish names. Then he ridicules them with the food fight scene. In it, Chaplin presents the leaders as children fighting over a toy. This scene demonstrates the absurdity on how Hitler and Mussolini settle their dispute and fate of countries.
Furthermore, Chaplin emphasizes on the mockery on Hitler: when Hynkel chokes and puts water down his pants while he is making a speech in front of thousands of people or when he climbs up a curtain like a little monkey. In addition to these scenes, Chaplin completely makes a fool of Hitler when he plays like a child with the world balloon. He makes him dance like a ballerina which confirm Chaplins antipathy toward Germanys Dictator.
The film also highlights the ironic fact that Hitler wanted an Aryan race to rule the world when his physical appearance went against this statement. The world had to be composed of only blondes with blue eyes but with a brown eye, dark hair ruler. Also, the sign of the Nazi party which was the swastika, is represented in the film as the double-cross. Chaplin wanted to denounce that the swastika had become a symbol of hatred and intolerance in Germany.
Goring is also being mocked with his physical appearance, especially with his overweight problem. In one scene, Hynkel takes off every button on his cloth to the point that his pants almost fall. Additionally, Hynkel calls him banana after having been pushed down the stairs due to his clumsiness. Since Goring is the Secretary of War, it is difficult to imagine that Germanys army would be so powerful with such of incompetent general in charge of it.
Throughout the film, viewers can also observed Chaplins compassion for the people living in the ghetto. He made the Jewish barber simple, innocent and courageous and Hannah, a brave woman inflicted by the persecution of Storm Troopers. As for the Storm Troopers, they were represented as inconsiderate men who disregarded the Jews. What’s more, the hero also made them look silly since he was able to escape during the fights.
While The Great Dictator was being made, the United States were still following the policies of noninvolvement despite the events happening in Europe. Many Neutrality Acts were passed by Congress to prevent a repetition of the circumstances that had drawn the United Stated into the First World War. Furthermore, at that time, most people in the United States did not know about the actual conditions in the concentration camps or that the German Government planned to murder millions of people.
Chaplins goal was to reveal to the American audiences the important events happening in Germany. By showing that the values of liberty and equality were threaten, Chaplin expected a reaction from the United States. A fight to preserve the American way of life had to begin.
To trigger a strong reaction, his movie emphasized on the persecution of the Jews; the attack of the ghetto was composed of powerful images of the violence and injustice toward this race. He also explicitly accentuated on the fact that Hitlers desire to conquer the world, to be the imperor of the world and that any non-Aryan person should be put into concentration camps to be tortured and killed.
By putting characters that the audience could relate to, The Great Dictator had a better chance of producing interventionist sentiments toward the events in Europe. For example, women could relate to Hannah, a hard worker who could not find work because of her race and who had to struggle through the humiliation and the discrimination of the Storm Troopers. Family members could feel the struggle through the Jewish family, who could be separated or killed for no justifiable reason.
Chaplin also denounces the domination of the Nazi Party, which came to power in Germany in 1933. The regime in place ruled by Hitler was completely opposed to democracy, which was what American had fought for during World War I.
The final speech is the most powerful moment of the film. Chaplin steps right out of his character and faces the camera, delivering an emphatic and astonishing speech. The purpose of this scene was to finish with a strong impact; it was what the viewers had to remember the most from the movie. Indeed, the speech stresses the notion of happiness, liberty, democracy and a promising future: You the people have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You the people have the power to make life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy let’s use that power – let us all unite. It was, without a doubt, one of first times that Hollywood ever let an actor give a speech like that in a movie.
With the help of movies similar to The Great Dictator, the isolationist sentiment was weakening. In October 1937, Roosevelt cautiously suggested some modification of Americans neutrality legislation and in May 1938 he announced a program of naval rearmament that would increase the American Navy.
Charlie Chaplin made this film despite the controversy and considerable opposition from the American Right which surrounded it. Likewise, the English office at United Artists were against the making an anti-Hitler film. The Great Dictator had
mixed reviews after its release. The press objected to the long final speech but nevertheless was so moving that Chaplin was later asked to repeat it on national radio.
Congressional leaders who were adamant in maintaining the policy of noninvolvement would not have approved this film either. Roosevelt on the contrary, supported any type of media that would help the involvement of the United Stated in the situation in Europe.
Through The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin wanted to ridicule the mystic bilge about a pureblooded race and to point the finger of Communism at the audience. Therefore the film threaten Hitler and the Nazi Party, and also Mussolini and its fascist party. However, the film ignores the situation in the pacific with Japans invasion of China and also the position of the United States during that time.
Despite the controversy that this film aroused, it was voted one of the year’s Ten Best in 1940 by The New York Times and deemed a success by the American public. To this day The Great Dictator remains one of the great classics.
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