The Great Dictator
d. Charlie Chaplin / 1940 / USA / 126 mins
Viewed on: Warner / mk2 DVD (Region 2)
As well as being a pitch-perfect parody and a scathingly clever satire, it struck me whilst watching The Great Dictator that this is perhaps one of the first stridently postmodern films. Satire it may be, but it is also something more – questioning not only the relatively unopposed rise of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists, but also the very basis of racial discrimination and political oppression in the modern world.
Framed as a satirical dig at the Nazis – who with the benefit of hindsight, seem almost self-parodic anyway – Chaplin also presents a series of characters which are seemingly self-referential, and are intrinsically related to both to his previous films (his poor Jewish barber is, essentially, The Tramp with scissors and a voicebox) as well as to the curious symmetry that saw him and the similarly mustachioed Führer born within just four days of each other in April 1889.
At its best, The Great Dictator is easily one of the finest parodies known to man, with Adenoid Hinkel’s comical faux-German dialect referencing everything from weiner schnitzels to sauerkraut, and Chaplin’s portrayal influencing everyone from Peter Sellars to Monty Python, and even Peter Griffin’s failed attempt at speaking Italian in Family Guy. And then there is, of course, the infamous ‘globe dance‘.
At its worst, however, this film is a bit of a bumbling, moralising mess. Most famously, there is Chaplin’s final speech direct to camera where, despite the character of Hinkel having been replaced by his barbership doppelgänger, it comes straight from Chaplin’s own heart. There are also the rants of Hannah (Paulette Godard), the barber’s love interest, who vents her vitriolic spleen against the injustices of life under the Double-Cross (standing-in here for the Nazi swastika). One impassioned plea sees her addressing the audience directly, engaging them passionately and evoking the fears of millions of victims of the Nazi regime. Of course, you can never doubt Chaplin’s intentions when including such scenes, yet in an otherwise spectacular parody they seem awkwardly out of place.