Criterion film a day, day 4: A Happier Hitler in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator

I am a very ill-disciplined film buff. To fix this, I’m spending the next thirty days plumbing the depths of the Criterion Collection, the if not definitive than certainly standard film collection of the important touchstones in the world of film. Each day I’ll pick a Criterion film from a different decade, starting from the nineteen-teens and moving up to the 2000s, then starting again, as available.

After going to some relatively dark places with the Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Fritz Lang’s haunting allegory to Hitler during his rise to power, I decided I needed a happier version of Hitler. For that, I turned to Chaplin’s the Great Dictator, which is a mostly upbeat satire of–as Eddie Izzard calls him–“the mass-murdering fuckhead” just a year before the United States would reluctantly enter the war.

Chaplin plays two characters–a Jewish barber and the egotistical dictator himself. The Jewish barber storyline follows his almost-accidental courtship of a beautiful woman, and various slapstick run-ins with stormtroopers in the Jewish ghetto. The dictator storyline follows, well, it really follow wherever the character’s imperious ego goes.

The film ends with the Barber, having been swapped with the Dictator, giving an impassioned speech for men to be soldiers of liberty and democracy. And so the war happily ends before its’ really begun, the cleansing of the aryan race derailed.

The film certainly portrays some naivete, and a lack of awareness about the gravity of what was happening to Jews and other minorities in the area. Its hard not to roll your eyes a little bit at the earnestness of the speech, given what really did happen in the next few years, but I’d venture to say that this is one of the most excellent pieces of humanistic oratory in film–or in drama generally.

At the time the film was praised for its portrayal of Jews for 1) Actually having them in the film and 2) Not turning them into anti-semitic caricatures. It was also an act of political courage on Chaplin’s part, to step so boldly into a national debate about America’s role in the war, and rubbing America’s collective nose in the “hear no evil, see no evil” policy towards the Jews at the time.

Of biographical note is that as a Vaudeville actor, Chaplin attempt at a solo career in the nineteen-teens failed because his Jewish character failed to take hold. I doubt his decision to make the Great Dictator was fueled by any hindsighted guilt about playing into mundane anti-semitism, but it makes for an interesting color to think that he refrained from such stereotypes in the film, while clearly being aware of their potential as entertainment.

Of general sidenote: Jews don’t actually control Hollywood or the media.

Final point of interest: this was the first of many Holocaust or WWII movies, of which–more than any other genocide or war–has had a consistent place in Hollywood in film. I can understand the place for WWII film. It was the war that cemented America as a superpower, and up until 9/11 dominated our psyche.

But the Holocaust? Where does that fit in? Where are the films about slavery (there have been some)?

I think the reason there are a limit to slave movies and such is that most of white America (which, let’s face it, is the segment of the population that hollywood films are made for and by) would rather forget that part of history. In WWII, America was the heroes, during slavery, white Americans were the villains. Even today, white people still benefit from racism simply by being white, even if they were immigrants, even if they themselves aren’t racist, there are still innumerable privileges of being white. This makes people angry, especially liberals, because they aren’t racist, so why do they have to feel guilty for being complicit in a system of racism?

The reaction, often, is to ignore it, instead of confronting it. The holocaust for what it is, is much easier to digest, etc. because it happened “over there” and we only got involved to be the heroes.


About Big Adam

A NYC doorman, a community organizer, wannabe ape, sometimes blogger, sometimes writer, always crossword puzzle incompleter, I will ride bicycles with your papa, dance Bhangra with your mama, take you on dates that cost nada.
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