Imagine a private projection of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, the film where the German director showed to the world the power and efficiency of Germany in 1936, and above all the gloomy figure of Adolf Hitler. While René Clair, one of the two guest on that projection, shuddered in front of the Nazi reality, the other one was laughing hysterically at every single appearance of Hitler: his name was Charlie Chaplin.
The monologues, the poses, the pompousness of Hitler appeared to him so excessive and extreme that he didn’t understand why nobody found it so ridiculous: Just the opposite, everyone feared the broken screams of that little man that was constantly adjusting his quiff.
Unfortunately, there was nothing funny, because entire populations were increasingly bent by the threats and the screams of the totalitarian regimes: the appetites of these dictatorships would soon extend their reach to the whole planet.
In the mid-thirties, Charlie Chaplin was quite satisfied about his own career: his sketchs as Charlot, coming from the silent cinema period, had filled the cinemas and made their author rich and famous. But although he was used to trigger laughs, Chaplin couldn’t ignore what he saw in Riefenstahl’s movie and committed himself to this mission: showing to the world what that dictatorship and the men behind it really were.
The great artists are especially those who don’t care about money and fame, but must find their way to communicate with their audience and sometimes to explain how things really are. This is how The Great Dictator was born: a movie that dismantled the Nazi toy from its foundations, using irony on its leaders and on the ideas that supported them.
The “non-expedit” by Great Britain, which clarified immediatley that a movie like that would have been banned in UK, made clear to Chaplin that a satire on a head of state like Hitler was not widely accepted, especially because many Western countries saw in him a good legislator and an important resistance against communism, despite some excess that didn’t worry them much.
Not discouraged, Chaplin decided anyway to proceed, aware of what was at stake: The Great Dictator was not only a film that directly attacked one of the most feared and powerful men in the world, but for the first time Chaplin tested himself in the spoken cinema, something that he avoided so far.
The story of the film takes place in Tomania, a country oppressed by a dictatorship, and sees Charlie Chaplin in two different roles. One was the Jewish barber who lost his memory, returned home after years in the hospital: he doesn’t understand what happens in his country and he attacks the fellows of the dictator Adenoid Hynkel, the other character played by him.
The barber has many of the characteristics of the tramp, such as melancholy and unwitting courage, as well as a humanity that makes him desperately disconnected to the violence that surrounds him. His charisma attracts Hanna (played by Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s partner at that time), but the grey shirts of Hynkel leave them no chance about a peaceful future.
The figure of the dictator is the ones with the most comic appeal (the clashes with Napoloni are absolutely hilarious, as well as the ridiculous gestures and the tones of Hynkel during his speeches), although it shows also the grotesque and wicked personality of the character.
By pure chance, there will be an identity mistake and the barberd will be able to speak to millions of people around the world: the message to humanity is one of the most touching moments of Chaplin’s cinema, which unsuccessfully attempts to reverse the course that history took.
World War II had already begun when the movie was about to be completed and Chaplin decided to change the final. The Great Dictator was out in the theatres in 1940 and it contained Chaplin’s long, final monologue, which represented last-minute attempt to let his voice be heard. The same voice he kept hidded for long time and now felt the urge to speak, calling for hope in front of the escalation of violence.
The message to humanity can look a forced element in the context of the film, but it was an attempt that unified people, aimed to awaken dormant consciences. The Great Dictator is still one of Chaplin’s most beautiful movies, his way to make the world understand how everything that was happening was illogical and absurd: his idea of mankind was something completely different than this crazy race towards self-destruction and hate.
They say that if Charlie Chaplin released The Great Dictator four or five years earlier, Hitler and Nazism couldn’t be able to unleash their load of hate on Europe and on most of the planet: a laugh would have buried them and ridiculized them forever.
Unfortunately it didn’t go that way.