#CriterionMonth “Hitler Must Be Laughed At”: The Ethics of Political Satire and Black Comedy in The Great Dictator

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When I first heard about Taika Waititi’s upcoming Hitler satire Jojo Rabbit, in which Waititi will be portraying a “goofy [and] charming” reincarnation of the Nazi dictator who also happens to be a young boy’s imaginary friend, I couldn’t help but ponder the ethical implications of such a distorted and seemingly light-hearted representation of one of history’s most despicable figures, even if he is only imaginary in this case. Granted, this wouldn’t be the first time that the image of Hitler has been ‘softened’ in film, as he was famously burlesqued by Charlie Chaplin in his 1940 satire The Great Dictator – a work that has reportedly inspired Waititi’s own. The film, written before the Second World War had even begun, follows a Jewish soldier-turned-barber (Chaplin) living a meek life in a ghetto in the nation of Tomainia under the tyrannical rule of its dictator, Adenoid Hynkel (also played by Chaplin). As Hynkel’s ambition to create a “pure Aryan race” intensifies, the Barber and his community, including love interest Hannah (Paulette Goddard), find themselves subject to ever-increasing oppression at the hands of Hynkel’s forces, who eventually capture the Barber and place him into a concentration camp along with Schultz – an ex-Tomainian commander whom the Barber saved during World War I. The pair manages to escape donning stolen uniforms, which leads to the Barber being mistaken for Hynkel himself and having to give a speech at a parade being held to mark Tomainia’s successful invasion of neighbouring Osterlich. Seizing this unexpected opportunity to speak freely in front of thousands of people, the Barber sheds his Hynkel guise and delivers a rousing cry for democracy and fraternity in the iconic speech which still resonates today.

Chaplin’s very first appearance as the dictator is, unsurprisingly, loaded with biting satire. Hynkel – dressed almost identically to Hitler – delivers a speech to his supporters entirely in a form of faux-German of Chaplin’s invention, made up of universally-known German words such as “sauerkraut” and “delicatessen” and some English words simply said in a German accent. The result, as you can imagine, is absurd but amusing. In addition to the German language, Chaplin wastes no time in ridiculing Hitler’s own personal manner of public speaking. The wild expressiveness of Hynkel’s gestures is matched only by the booming theatricality of his voice as he shouts every word, causing him to have multiple comically well-timed coughing fits. He further parodies Hitler’s excessive oratory by bellowing so loudly into the surrounding microphones that they bend backwards and forwards as if the sheer force of his voice is making them move. While it’s hard not to laugh at Chaplin’s uncanny ability to burlesque Hitler so accurately, it also feels wrong to do so. After all, the very speeches that Chaplin is ridiculing were key elements of Nazi propaganda that contributed to Hitler’s rise in popularity and power, so the use of satire could be seen to be trivialising their impact and consequences. Although minimising the threat of Hitler through parody was to make him seem “less fearsome [and] more defeatable” – to provide some short-term comic relief and a sense of hope to audiences during times of despair – it was also reckless and ethically questionable. As a non-Jewish, blue-eyed, rich white man living in America (a country that wasn’t to enter the Second World War until a year after the release of The Great Dictator), Chaplin himself was never really in any serious danger, but by attempting to reduce the danger that Hitler posed he was effectively sugar-coating reality and, as we look at it retrospectively, underestimating Hitler in the process.

This tendency to soften the reality of the war is apparent later in the film where Chaplin uses his classic comedy techniques in scenes where the narrative ultimately should not be considered amusing. One scene, in particular, shows the Stormtroopers confronting the Jewish barber after he attempts to wipe off the graffiti that reads “JEW” that they have just painted on his shop window. Despite the severity of the situation, the violence that ensues is full of slapstick gags reminiscent of Chaplin’s earlier silent films, which arguably marks the scene with tinges of black comedy. After being pushed around by one Stormtrooper for not obeying his command, the Barber grabs the soldier’s paintbrush and deals a vigorous blow to the side of his face in the vein of Chaplin’s Tramp persona in films such as The Pawnshop (1916) and Easy Street (1917). As another Stormtrooper joins the fracas and aids in pushing the Barber to the ground, Hannah appears from the window above and hits both of the Nazis on the head with a frying pan – another classic slapstick trope that Chaplin was fond of; he uses a brick and a wooden baton to the same effect in The Kid (1921) and The Circus (1928) respectively. Although the sequence does serve as a meet-cute for the Barber and Hannah, and also establishes the latter’s strong will and non-conformism, the use of light-hearted slapstick to portray their struggle against the oppressive force of the Nazis seems to soften the reality of antisemitism during the Second World War, and of the ongoing violence perpetrated against the Jewish people. Once again, it could be argued here that it was unethical and insensitive of Chaplin to use comedy to represent a harsh reality that was never going to affect him personally. However, he does ensure that the Barber is always seen as the underdog who needs the audience’s support, which is helped even more by the fact that he greatly resembles Chaplin’s universally-beloved Tramp character.

Another comedy technique that Chaplin employs in this scene is dance. A vivid contrast to the rough and frenetic energy of slapstick, Chaplin incorporated his own unique form of ballet into multiple Tramp comedies: from unconsciously dreaming of frolicking in fields with nymphs in Sunnyside (1919) to dancing gracefully around a factory in a labour-induced psychosis in Modern Times (1936). The brief ‘dance’ sequence in this scene sees the Barber stumbling in a semi-balletic style up and down the street after Hannah accidentally strikes him with the frying pan during the brawl. Fortunately, he regains consciousness and he and Hannah succeed in kicking the Stormtroopers to the curb – a small but impactful victory. While the use of ‘dance’ in this scene is almost an ode to the legacy of the Tramp character, thus injecting the Barber with added likeability and innocence, it takes on a more satiric effect later in the film in a scene featuring Hynkel and a giant blown-up globe.

After filling his head with the idea of becoming “Dictator of the World”, Hynkel’s Minister of Propaganda (aptly named Garbitsch, after Hitler’s own associate Joseph Goebbels) leaves Hynkel to revel in the possibility of a global empire. What follows is an extremely symbolic but eerie 2-minute ‘ballet’ sequence in which the dictator gracefully moves around his office kicking and bouncing the globe balloon up in the air, accompanied solely by the tranquil strings of Wagner’s Lohengrin prelude. Hynkel’s dancing reverie comes to an abrupt end when he holds the globe just a bit too tightly and it bursts in his face; clutching its tattered remains, he mournfully turns away from the camera. At its very essence, the scene satirises Hitler’s egotism and thirst for power, but its tone could not be more different from the rest of the film’s satire. Unlike the caricature of Hitler we see during Hynkel’s first speech, which ridicules his over-the-top oratory and maniacal gestures, this scene shows an ironically calmer and saner individual. The elegance and sensitivity with which he dances with and catches the globe present a complete contradiction to his destructive beliefs and actions, which, when combined with the soft melancholic Wagner score, creates a jarring effect that hinders the scene’s comic value. The switch in satiric technique from exaggerating Hitler’s persona to softening it through irony arguably borders on humanising him, and leaves you wondering how exactly to react. Although the satire is ethically questionable, the scene does end on a more serious note: the bursting of the balloon effectively foreshadows the world’s resistance against Hitler and his eventual demise, although the latter wasn’t to arrive for another 6 years.

Despite its ethical shortcomings, The Great Dictator is, without doubt, an important piece of satire that Chaplin worked tirelessly on in order to perfect; his intentions were admirable and the film did prove very popular in the US, earning the equivalent of $87 million at the box office. Interestingly, Chaplin openly recognised his innocent ignorance in hindsight; he wrote the following in his 1964 autobiography: “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”  Although the distance between the Second World War and the present day grows ever greater, I can only hope that as Taika Waititi moves forward with Jojo Rabbit he will deal with the subject matter in a way that won’t leave him regretting it 25 years later…

 

Reference:

Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964), 392.

 

You can view The Great Dictator on Criterion here.

 

By Holly Weaver

Holly Weaver is currently studying French and Spanish at the University of Leeds, and has spent her year abroad studying film in Montréal. An old soul, she is enraptured by pre-1960s cinema and some of her favourite films include Singin’ in the Rain, City Lights and The Crime of Monsieur Lange. Her life ambition is to dress like Phillip “Duckie” Dale from Pretty in Pink, her one true style icon. You can find her tweeting and letterboxd’ing at @drivermiller.

 

 

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