Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) satirizes Adolf Hitler and the growth of National Socialism in Germany with Chaplin in a dual role as dictator Adenoid Hynkel and a persecuted Jewish barber. Hynkel implements policies of strict control on the Jewish population of the country of Tomania, while planning the invasion of the nearby country Austerlich as a first step towards ruling the world. The barber resists attempts by storm troopers to take over his shop, and winds up in a concentration camp.
The Great Dictator raises the question about whether it is possible to make a successful comedy out of such grim subject matter as Nazi totalitarianism. Chaplin himself said later that a comedy would have been impossible if he had known the full extent of what was going on in Germany, how utterly beyond the pale events were even compared to those occurring under other dictatorships. Here Hynkel and his storm troopers are bumbling figures (Hynkel falls down stairs, dances with an inflatable globe, and rants in German gibberish; the storm troopers are neutralized with a bop to the head with a frying pan), and nothing so funny would seem to pose a serious threat. Must laughter then be disqualified as a weapon against evil?
Chaplin, apparently deciding that humor is finally not enough, forsakes it in the final scene, choosing to end the film with a direct appeal to viewers’ hearts as the barber makes a speech denouncing the ills of dictatorship and calling for unity and democracy. However sensible the ideas are, the speech itself has been criticized as preachy and out of character for the mostly silent barber (this is Chaplin’s first full-sound film, the better for the audience to hear the speeches). Both humor and earnestness have their pitfalls, but what else is there to do within the bounds of cinema?
Chaplin’s performances are so impressive that it is easily to overlook the supporting cast, but some in particular deserve credit: Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s then-spouse, both feisty and touching as Hannah, an inhabitant of the Jewish ghetto in Tomania who helps the barber in his struggle against the storm troopers, and Jack Oakie as the Mussolini figure Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria. Napaloni’s food-throwing quarrels with Hynkel are among the film’s comic highlights.
The Great Dictator is not your average comedy; it provokes thought about what are the proper limits of humor and when one can say what topics just aren’t funny. Although that may not have been at the forefront of Chaplin’s mind, that is the effect of his film, and raising questions about the nature of humor itself is one of the many things makes Chaplin one of the greatest of comedians.
James Garfield, a graduate of Claremont College’s Master of Arts in Flim Studies, serves Perelandra College as an administrator.