Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Great, Great, Great, Great Dictator

The Great Dictator is one hell of a film. And, it only had one release date in the U.S.! Gasp. It was released in 1940 and written and directed by Charlie Chaplin. I admit that I was not his biggest fan before seeing this film. I hadn't seen much of his work, but his "Tramp" persona just bothered me. It seemed like he was always doing the same thing. I much preferred Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. And I wasn't blown away by City Lights like most people are. I thought it was really good, but it isn't the end-all, be-all that most people claim it is. I just never saw what was so special about him. I do now.

I'm shocked by The Great Dictator. It's genius. I can't believe he released this film in 1940. The plot is really complicated, but to summarize, it's basically about Adolf Hitler. Chaplin plays two roles - Adenoid Hynkel (dictator of fictional Tomania) and a Jewish barber/World War I Tomanian veteran. There's nothing subtle about it. Hynkel is so blatantly Hitler. His two henchmen in the film - Herring and Garbitsch (pronounced "garbage") - are Goerring and Goebbels. The dictator of Bacteria, Benzini Napaloni, is Benito Mussolini. You see where this is going, right? Chaplin looks and sounds exactly like Hitler. At least, he sounds like him when he's speaking his pseudo-German, which is totally made up except for the occasional real words like "sauerkraut" and "cheese und cracken" (the latter used as an obscenity). Whenever he's not in character and yelling in German, Hynkel speaks in a very refined, anonymously European (closest to British) voice, only going into, excuse me...Tomanian when he gets angry or needs to be official (like addressing the people). Apparently Chaplin thought Hitler was one of the greatest actors he had ever seen. He captures that here, the idea of Hitler's persona and being able to turn it on and off.

We follow two separate plotlines in the film - that of the amnesiac Jewish barber returning to a world of anti-Semitism in the ghetto, and that of Hynkel plotting world domination. Keep in mind, this film was released in 1940. A year after Hitler invaded Poland. World War II was totally underway. I keep repeating it because I can't even believe Chaplin made this film. It's maybe the most scathing satire I've ever seen. This is more bold than even the work of Preston Sturges during the war (and I worship Preston Sturges and think he was one of the greatest, most brilliant satirists in history). I guess Chaplin grew increasingly unsettled making this as the war went on and Hitler got worse. I think he felt bad that he was making a comedy in light of the horrific things that were going on, things people were either ignoring or didn't know about yet. It's hard to say who knew what and when about the Holocaust. But I know one thing - Chaplin had no reason to feel bad or ashamed. That was the darkest period in human history to date (if I can be so bold). It was the time when people needed comedy the most.

Just to take a brief detour, The Great Dictator reminds me so much of one of my favorite films - Life is Beautiful. Roberto Benigni unquestionably channeled Chaplin in making his film - his physical performance, the blend of comedy with tragedy, the similar subject matter, and the powerful message. I think Chaplin would be proud.

But back to The Great Dictator. Chaplin's bravery should be applauded. He literally spit right in Hitler's face. His agenda is never in question. You can feel Chaplin's anger at the world situation. It overflows from every frame. I felt exhilarated watching it. It's such an important time capsule. I felt like I was in 1940. There's such passion in his writing, directing, and acting. It's hilarious, but it's also poignant. Every time Hynkel speaks in his faux-German, I couldn't help but laugh. There's a scene where he tears the ridiculous amount of medals off of Herring's chest that cracked me up. There's a very memorable sequence of him playing dreamily with a globe. I chuckled every time he called for "Garbage" (Garbitsch). The scenes with Hynkel and Napaloni are hysterical - just sheer brilliance. Everything is perfectly executed in The Great Dictator. The scenes in the ghetto with the Jewish barber are not as overtly funny as the ones with Hynkel, but they provide the emotional gravity. And they're funny in their own way. There's some great stuff with coins in pudding, pans hitting heads, and barbering (yeah, I think I made that word up) choreographed to classical music. There's a sweet love story between the barber and Hannah, played with real sensitivity by Paulette Goddard. The film has everything.

It also has an inevitable case of mistaken identity. Hynkel and the barber are practically identical, so you know there'll be a switch, but when it happens, it's still surprising. And the ending is incredible. I don't want to ruin anything, but I think it's such a famous scene anyway that it won't spoil the film for you. At the end, the barber, thought to be Hynkel, is forced to give a speech to the masses. It's basically a five minute monologue with Chaplin staring straight at the camera. He's looking right at you. That was extremely rare, and it's so powerful here. He attacks the system of greed and hate destroying the world and pleads for humanity to be restored. It's a direct assault on fascism and specifically the Nazis and Hitler. In 1940! It's one of the greatest bits of acting in the history of cinema. I wasn't ever sure if Chaplin could really act. Well, this shut me up. It's triumphant. I was moved to tears.

But is it really acting? At this point in the film, I don't think it is anymore. This is Chaplin speaking to the world. Still, that doesn't change my opinion on his acting. It's an incomparable performance, no matter what. People who call it cheesy and melodramatic need to check their pulses and then try, just try, to imagine what it was like to be in the midst of such a heinous war. All people do today is complain. People in the 1940s - some had dealt with World War I, then there was the Depression, and then World War II. They're real heroes. They looked death in the face every day and still managed to be hopeful. We can learn a lot from them and films like this one. That's why I love that era so much. These people were not naive - they experienced more than we could ever fathom, and they still made optimistic films, meant to boost morale, lighten spirits, and inspire change. This film is still relevant today. We should take a page out of Chaplin's book. The beautiful message of The Great Dictator is ultimately one of hope and the power of the human spirit. Who today could face all that and still manage to give that speech? No one.

Did I mention this came out in 1940? I still can't believe it. What nerve, what courage, and what genius. I dismissed Charlie Chaplin before. I didn't get what was so special. Well, I get it now. I have to end with some words from his final speech: "Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost." Are you listening, America?

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

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