The war is complicated. Humanity is complicated. Gather them and there will be a perfect storm of destruction and loss of life. But satire allows us to laugh and think clearly. In 1940, when World War II began to absorb Europe, legendary comedy actor Charlie Chaplin released his most influential and successful film, The Great Dictator.
Charlie Chaplin: Film director
Some people in the Hollywood world see what they do, just work. That is indeed the case. They show up on the set, do what they were hired for and then go home. If that’s their prerogative, that’s perfectly normal. But Chaplin didn’t fit into that category. He understood both the actor and the director, the power of the medium and how it can illuminate the imperfections of our world.
When I was in college, I took some classes about his work. By the end of the semester I had learned that Chaplin was much bigger than his most famous character, the Wanderer. Born in circumstances I would not wish for any child, he realized that 99% was disadvantaged by the mere coincidence of birth and fate. It developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first half of the twentieth century was marked by poverty and deprivation in the poorest areas of London. Her parents’ wedding was a stormy one. Although they were never legally separated when the marriage ended, it was literally over. Without her husband’s financial support, her mother took a job as a lackey to support the family and was then admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
When he entered the film industry as an adult, he used his childhood experiences to create the narrative arches and characteristics of his work. His early films, which reflect this notion, told the story of those who were not born rich and strong. Immigrant (1917), New Age (1936) and Kid (1921) are just three examples of how he had a thorough understanding of the world in which most of his listeners lived.
War satire film with complications
It is one of the many films that were shot and released during the Second World War. Many of these films were either political or militaristic in the narrative sense of the word. Only a few (like it or not in 1942) told the story of those who were imprisoned in Nazi Europe and hoped and prayed that they would survive.
Satire has the ability to make the audience relax, laugh and minimize their fears. Thanks to his creepy resemblance to the Nazi dictator, Chaplin (like Mel Brooks after him) got the liberating moviegoers he needed in the 1940s. Complications come into play with the figure of the Jewish laundress Hannah (Paulette Goddard). Just like their real colleagues, the Jews of the fictional country of Tomainia have to live in a ghetto. But it is precisely here that the experiences of the Jewish characters on screen and the real victims and survivors of the Holocaust are different. When he heard of the horrors of the Holocaust, Chaplin regretted that he used the murder of millions of people as a comedy.
Universal and high-speed communication
If there’s one thing that stays the same, it’s human nature. Technology and science can change, attitudes to each other can change, but human nature is and remains the same. Watching this film in 2020 seems just as relevant as in 1940. We live in a world where democracy is no longer safe. Not that this is a start, but I think those of us who live in democratic countries have taken it for granted.
It’s Chaplin’s last speech, giving it a special sauce for me. He could get up on his platform and give a lecture to his audience. But given the length and subject of the film, stepping into the soapbox would mean unbuttoning the message of the film. Instead, he uses the figure of a Jewish hairdresser pretending to be Hinkel, the dictator of the Toman, to touch the hearts and minds of the theatre people. Change can only happen if our hearts and minds are open to the steps needed to achieve it.
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