The Great Dictator: Challenging authority with characters and commentary

The year is 1939. Nazi Germany has just invaded Poland. A week later, Chaplin begins shooting The Great Dictator. This film is a classic example of how film, both on the screen and off, can challenge authority.

On the screen, it can be clearly seen how Chaplin spoofs Hitler and his associates. As Dan Kamin points out, “No one could miss the litany of insulting names – Goebbels becomes Garbitch, Goring becomes Herring, and Benito Mussolini becomes Benzino Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria, whose capital is Aroma,” (9). Throughout the movie, there are many sequences that display Hynkel and his associates as “petty and treacherous buffoons” (Scheide 30) such as when Hynkel and Napaloni fight each other with food whilst speaking of treaties. In this sense, Chaplin is making a commentary by portraying these authority figures in such a demeaning light. However, Chaplin does more than just commentary. He gives his characters strength and a will to fight against the oppressive regime in Tomania.

When Hannah witnesses the storm troopers taking a street vendor’s foods, she asks around at her fellow Jews, “Why don’t some of you do something? If I were a man…” and then belittles the storm troopers. In return, the storm troopers humiliate her by pelting her with tomatoes and other fruits. When the Jewish barber returns from the war hospital, he opens up his shop again and starts tidying up. At this point, the barber is still suffering from amnesia and has no memory of recent events. He has no idea that Hynkel has been persecuting the Jewish people. After seeing the vandalism on his window, he tries to wipe it off.

The storm troopers see this and the barber gets in a big scuffle with them. At this point, it is not his bravery but his ignorance that causes him to resist and challenge the authority set in place. After getting mobbed by a huge group of storm troopers, their commanding officer Schultz enters the scene. He recognizes the barber as the man who saved his life during the war. Schultz asks the storm troopers why they were attacking him and they say, “He resisted my men painting his windows,” to which Schultz replies, “Any brave man would resist.” Not only does this foreshadow Schultz’s future rebellion against Hynkel, but it cements his character as one that will clash with the law when the law isn’t morally right. When Hynkel decides to persecute the Jews after Epstein refuses to loan him money for his invasion, Hynkel stands up again. “At such a time I think it ill-advised. Such demonstrations demoralize the country.” Hynkel responds by placing him under arrest and sentencing him to a concentration camp. It’s interesting to note at this point that Chaplin wrote in his autobiography:

But I was determined to go ahead, for Hitler must be laughed at. 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. However, I was determined to ridicule their mystic bilge about a pure-blooded race. (Chaplin 106)

And so he does with Schultz’s response, “Very well, but remember my words. Your cause is doomed to failure because it is built on the stupid persecution of innocent people. Your policy is worse than a crime. It’s a tragic blunder.” Chaplin continues to demean Hitler’s myth of a pure-blooded race with a point that many people have brought up about the Aryan race.

Schultz isn’t the only character that fights against the authority. The Jewish men in the ghetto prepare to fight as Mr. Jaeckel states, “Get the women and children upstairs. Lock all the doors. You men, stay right here. We’ve got to make a stand. We might as well die as live like this.” Luckily, the battle is avoided and the old men live to fight another day. Instead, the storm troopers start searching for the barber. As they are about to burst into the courtyard the barber courageously, and perhaps foolhardily, stands his ground. Hannah protests, “They’ll kill you!” to which the barber replies, “I’ll fight.” Hannah has to drag the barber away. This time, it was the barber’s true courage, not ignorance of the situation, that inspired him to stand up against the storm troopers. Later on, Schultz escapes and plots with the Jewish men to kill Hynkel. Hannah again sways them from committing foolish acts of death. Here, Hannah is challenging the authority of Schultz who was taking command of the men.

Of course, there are consequences to challenging the authority in power. The barber’s shop gets blown up, and Schultz and the barber get sent to a camp. Through a series of fortunate events, the barber gets confused for Hynkel and is taken to give a speech after invading the neighboring country of Osterlich. Here, Chaplin seems to get out of his traditional Tramp character and speaks directly from his own point of view. Although many critics cited this as a negative aspect of the final part of the film, I found the effect to be astounding. Chaplin stares into the camera tenaciously and blinks less than ten times in about five minutes.

Chaplin preaches of love, compassion, and humanity’s gentle nature. He asks soldiers to rise against their leaders, “unnatural brutes” and to fight for liberty and freedom. It’s a beautiful speech that can’t be done justice until seen.

It’s interesting to note how in the beginning of the movie, the barber fought in World War I and followed his instructions. The commanding officer would give instructions to his subordinate standing next to him, and he would do the same to his subordinate standing next to him, and he would do the same in an assembly line fashion until the barber received the orders and followed them blindly. When he first meets Schultz, Schultz pleads, “Help me to my plane..” to which the barber replies, “I’m only too willing to oblige!” In this sense, it’s very interesting to see how the barber’s views on soldiers following orders have changed throughout the film. With his final speech, Chaplin leaves us with hope in our hearts to confront and challenge evil no matter how high that authority may seem.

– Jhonny Garcia

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