The Great Dictator

The Great Dictator (1941) dir. Charles Chaplin

In the long scene, Chaplin’s satire fails utterly. Can one actually imagine Hitler weeping at the destruction of the world when destruction was his intention? Can one imagine Hitler admitting fear, when he was a limitless source of terror? – Jennie Lightweis-Goff, Senses of Cinema (2006)

I disagree with Lightweis-Goff. Global destruction was certainly not Hitler’s intention and Hitler was a human being with fears and desires like any other.

The Apotheosis of Adolf was a project started by the Nazis and continued in the popular imagination by casting him as a malevolent deity.  Hitler’s plans for Germany didn’t work out, but his egotistical desire to be seen as a Wagnerian god has.

The real Nazi party was a disorganized mess, and Hitler only achieved the military success he did through luck rather than some sort of genius.  Yet popular historiography simply perpetuates the self-glorifying mythos he created.

The earliest assaults attacks on Hitler aimed at precisely the correct target.

 The Great Dictator - Charlie Chaplin and Jack Oakie

Fascism’s ideology is, as I explored in last week’s post on Metropolis, an anti-utopian critique that itself becomes a utopian ideal.  It was as much pro-non-semitic as it was antisemitic.  Hitler saw himself as leading Germany (and eventually the world) into a new golden age to surpass Rome.  Humanity could throw off the shackles of religion, capitalism, liberal democracy and communism.  It could embrace a true, deep, great life rooted in national and family values rather than the petty materialism and slave morality that Judaism and its child, Christianity, espoused.

By satirizing Nazi propaganda, Chaplin attacked Nazi ideas.  The large majority of films about Nazi Germany succeed in portraying the Hell, but neglect to contrast fascism’s reality with its imaginary Heaven.

Hitler was not a “great man” in the Cesarean sense he longed to be.  He was an absurd, deluded narcissist. Downfall exposes him as a sniveling, manic Raskolnikov; The Great Dictator as a clown.

Hitler should not be remembered as The History Channel remembers him.  He should be remembered like this:

As a final note, Chaplin makes the same mistake as Lang and ends the film with his own utopian dream.  His out-of-character postscript is an unwitting, bitterly ironic self-parody.

 The Great Dictator - Charlie Chaplin

In Triumph des Willens, Hitler and his lieutenants sound alarmingly like candidates for political office. They do not speak of Jews as though they were vermin; they do not promise to exterminate any group or political faction. Like Chaplin’s Barber shouting “Let us unite!”, Hitler’s concluding speech in the film assures the audience that “we are united. We want a society without class or caste.” – ibid.

I strongly recommend reading Chaplin: The Dictator and the Tramp.  Frank Scheide, one of the editors, appeared on Razorback Reels with Aaron and me a few years ago and was full of fascinating information on Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

(Paging Doctor Freud: Chaplin cast his ex-wife in the film as his love interest.  Her character was named ‘Hannah,’ after Chaplin’s mother.)

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