I have a certain fascination with the history surrounding the Second World War. I simply can not get enough of BBC documentaries, Hollywood dramas, or historical fiction and nonfiction telling the stories the era. No matter how much I study these few short years from the mid-1930’s to the mid-1940’s, I can never, and perhaps will never, run out of new and fascinating tales and facts to uncover. With the 20/20 hindsight of history, I can say that there has never before been a time when good and evil have been so clearly defined; conflict so obviously justified; and mankind so pushed to the very limits of humanity.
With this in mind, I delight in struggling to put myself into the position of a contemporary observer of the era. For there was definitely a time, a truly ugly spot on the record of international public opinion, when Adolf Hitler was regarded as a brilliant and inspiring leader, not just in his own country but all around the globe. The world was slowly struggling through what would later be known as the Great Depression; the German people were struggling doubly under both the Depression and the Versailles treaty; and the world looked on as this strange little man rose from obscurity to bring Germany back into relevance, through a peculiar combination of passionate, inspiring rhetoric and belligerent hate speech. For years America turned a blind eye to Hitler’s blatant racism, antisemitism and flagrant insanity as she tried to walk the fine, fine line of neutrality down the isle of what was obviously a war brewing in Europe.
It was against this Bizarro World, pro-Nazi backdrop that Charlie Chaplin began to pen the script for his very first talking motion picture. The internationally famous star had continued to make silent movies long past the point that every other major studio had moved on to talkies; almost as if he was saving his voice for something historically meaningful. One must understand that this was long before the horrors of the Holocaust came to light, or even had occured; long before the concentration camps, the SS death squads, the mass graves or the human incinerators. And yet Chaplin, neither Jewish nor from a country threatened by Nazi Germany, saw the insanity of Hitler and was determined to tell the world what he thought in the one way that he knew best: mockery and comedy.
At this time, the United States of America was still officially neutral in the political turmoil that was broiling in Europe; and as Chaplin was preparing to make his masterpiece movie, Hitler had yet to commence outright hostilities. For this reason or another, Hollywood refused to make or release any movies that addressed Nazi Germany’s mistreatment of the Jewish people and its dangerously war-mongering ideology. Thus, Chaplin decided to sink his entire fortune of roughly $1.5 million dollars (almost $25 million in today’s currency) to produce and distribute his movie, almost entirely on his own. Charlie Chaplin wrote the script, composed the score, directed the action, produced the film, and stared as both of the movie’s main characters. When it was released, more than one full year before America declared war on Nazi Germany, “The Great Dictator” was met with both enormous controversy and critical acclaim. It was the first major Hollywood film to portray the suffering of the Jewish peoples under the Nazis, let alone portray Hitler in a negative light. “The Great Dictator” would go on to be nominated for five Academy Awards.
Ironically, the full disclosure of the atrocities perpetuated by the Nazis would put an end to such satires. In post-WWII interviews, Charlie Chaplin would say that, had he known what the Nazis were really planning, he would not have made such a movie. Once Allied powers discovered the true nature of the Holocaust in 1945, it would be a full 23 years before another filmmaker would dare to lampoon the Nazis in a major film. (That dubious honor goes to Mel Brooks for his work “The Producers,” which did not directly address the German treatment of the Jews.) Nonetheless, I respect Chaplin’s response to the controversy surrounding his film; when asked about it, he responded, “half-way through making The Great Dictator I began receiving alarming messages from United Artists … but I was determined to go ahead, for Hitler must be laughed at.”
My own personal reaction to the film is complicated. With the hindsight afforded to me as an impartial student of history, I sympathize with Chaplin’s later critique of his own film. I understand that it is not the serious retrospective that he would have preferred to produce for an atrocity such as the Holocaust. And in a technical sense, it is rough and obvious when compared to political satires and social critiques of my own generation. Yet at the same time, “The Great Dictator” was an incredible success, both as a timely reaction to a dangerous tide of bigotry and as a timeless appeal to human decency. The final major scene, an out-of-character soliloquy by Charlie Chaplin, is an inspiring and impassioned call to arms against bigotry and Fascism, shot in a single cut and drawing on every iota of Chaplin’s practiced skills as a silent film actor but also establishing him as an unparalleled orator. Even today, more than 70 years after its original release, it continues to echo deep inside the viewer long after they’ve turned off their TV set; and continues to haunt their consciouses as they digest the often painful news coming out of Africa and the Middle East.
I hesitate to post a link to this pivotal final scene out of context. Unfortunately, the relative rarity of this movie ensures that most people will not easily be able to view it in its entirety, despite its historical significance. DVD copies are of limited print and run $35+, and it is not yet available on Netflix; although as a testament to the immortality of digital media, it is already available on Hulu plus. However, the final scene (youtube link here) does as good a job as any to capture Chaplin’s slapstick comic talents and writing and acting genius in less than ten minutes. As you watch, remember that Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, scored, acted in, and financed the entire movie.
The world has evolved so much in the last four generations. And yet, at the same time, there is so much that is exactly the same, it is truly frightening.