Director: Charles Chaplin (USA). Year of Release: 1941
The Western Front, 1918. Soldiers scurry erratically through the trenches. We pan out to a man with a familiar moustache who is operating one of the big guns, which is unsuccessfully trying to fire bombs on Notre Dame Cathedral, 75 miles away. We will later find out that the man is a Jewish barber, but we never learn his name, just as we don’t know what Chaplin’s Tramp is called.
A plane crashes nearby, and the pilot explains that he needs to take some important documents to the government. As the pilot is too weak to fly the plane himself, the barber climbs on board and helps him fly, mainly upside down. They finally arrive at their destination, but as they reach for the documents, they learn that the war is over and that their country of Tomania has lost.
The barber falls into a 20 year coma and misses the developments in Tomania, including the coming to power of the dictator Adenoid Hynkel and his antisemitic organisation which rallies under the symbol of the “double cross”. One day, the barber leaves the hospital to return to his shop. The hospital staff let him go because he is not a high risk.
Having no knowledge of the previous two decades, the barber doesn’t understand the significance of the stormtroopers who have painted JEW on his shop window, nor why it’s not a particularly good idea to start scrubbing it off. He gets involved with a fight with them, greatly aided by the neighbour’s daughter Hannah, who keeps bonking them on the head with her frying pan. The stormtroopers are just about to take the barber away when their Commander arrives.
Commander Schultz is the pilot whose life was saved by the barber 20 years previously. He lets the barber free. Later on, Schultz’s own arrest is announced. He returns to the ghetto and goes into hiding with the barber. Of course, it’s the barber who has to carry Schultz’s golf clubs. Soon, both are arrested and sent to a Concentration Camp while Hannah and her family flee to neighbouring Osterlich.
The film moves to the headquarters of Hynkel, where we meet Hynkel’s two main advisors. Garbitsch acts like he is the real power behind the throne and criticises Hynkel for being too soft on the Jews. You can tell that he’s sinister as he speaks in an aristocratic English accent. Herring, on the other hand, is a pompous buffoon, his chest covered in medals that he didn’t earn. Any resemblances to Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering is, of course, coincidental.
Hynkel, Garbitsch and Herring are preparing to host Benzino Napaloni, head of the neighbouring country of Bacteria. Bacteria is deploying troops in Osterlich to prevent a Tomanian invasion. Napaloni is a posturing bully with the body of Tony Soprano and the voice of Chico Marx. He and Hynkel engage in competitive actions such as each jacking his seat up higher than the other’s.
Hynkel is mistakenly arrested when he is on a duck hunt. Around the same time, the barber and Schultz break out of the camp and the barber gets hold of Hynkel’s greatjacket. They join the convey of vehicles invading Osterlich. Mistaken for Hynkel, the barber is invited to make a speech in which he calls for a more humane society and an end to despotism and inequality. The End.
This was far from the first time that I’d seen The Great Dictator, but I was amazed just how little of the actual plot I actually remembered. The speech at the end, of course, Hynkel’s ballet with an inflatable globe, and a few other minor scenes, but while of course I knew what The Great Dictator was “about”, for most of the time it was like watching the film for the first time (this probably says more about my memory for films than anything else).
A couple of points. It is particularly interesting to watch the film a week after I saw The Gold Rush. I said then that while even Chaplin’s earliest films talk about fighting inequality, they show a much more individual solution than what was to come. So, before Modern Times, say, structural inequality is resolved by the Little Tramp getting the girl and living happily after after.
While even in The Great Dictator, the barber gets the girl, much more is also going on. Quite early on, Hannah says something like we are powerless on our own, so we can only win collectively. And the barber’s speech at the end has been much shared, but often misunderstood as being a purely anti-Nazi speech. Of course it is this, and it is great that it is obviously sickened by Nazism. But this is not all that it is saying.
I’m not sure if the timing of the film’s release is intentional, but in light of recent developments, showing it now means that this misinterpretation fits closely with the idea that Vladimir Putin is uniquely evil in world politics – the new Hynkel if you will. (Before you say anything, of course Putin is a tyrant and the invasion of Ukraine was an imperialist act of aggression, but I’m trying to say something else on top of this).
Instead of talking about what some people would like to think the barber’s speech says, let’s directly quote from it:
The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed
We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in
Machinery that gives us abundance has left us in want
He goes on to say the following:
Don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel!
Who drill you – diet you – treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder
Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts!
Now let us fight to fulfil that promise!
Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance
Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness
In the name of democracy, let us all unite
This is not (just) an anti-Nazi speech, it is an anti-capitalist speech. It is against all borders and a society that privileges the rich over the poor, the powerful over the weak. It is criticizing the inequalities that could be clearly seen in Hitler’s Germany – and in Putin’s Russia, but just as much in Western countries, albeit in less repressive forms. It is not a coincidence that Chaplin’s “premature anti-fascism” in The Great Dictator was one of the main reasons he was deported from the USA.
The Great Dictator is also a film which is acutely aware of the class decisions in society. Whether in the unspoken assumptions that the barber should carry the luggage – and golf clubs – of the “good Nazi” Schultz, or the acknowledgement that working class women like Hannah are at the very bottom of the heap, there is always something going on in the background to show that even inside the resistance, rich white men are very much more equal than anyone else.
The great liberal film critic Roger Ebert believed that “the film comes to a dead end when the barber, impersonating Hynkel, delivers a monologue of more than three minutes which represents Chaplin’s own views.” Many other people who have seen the film would beg to differ. It is a perfect ending to a film which is against all warmongering, all exploitation, a film that shows once again that Chaplin was much more political than he is usually given credit for.
The Great Dictator is a film of it’s time, but like the best films, it is also a film of our time. As such, it is always in danger of being misinterpreted, but we should welcome it as something which calls for a life that is better and fairer than any which are currently on offer under capitalist society. Chaplin is One of Us, and The Great Dictator is one of the clearest arguments why.
Oh, and it is laugh out loud hilarious as well.