Sunday, May 23, 2004

The Great Dictator

Hitler look-alike and a Jewish barber who looks like the Hitler look-alike have very different adventures and end up being mistaken for each other.  Hijinks--and some surprisingly poignant commentary--ensue.
As I try to learn a little bit about film, my colleague and movie-buff friend, Larry, has been invaluable to me in the year or so that he's been lending me movies to watch, especially with regard to American films from the '30s through the '50s.  It is only a small exaggeration to say that if you name it, he has it.  I'm just guessing, but in the past year he has lent me at least 30 films, maybe as many as 40, and to hear him tell it, he has many, many more.  During the week before the semester ended, he brought me a Wal-Mart bag with 10 more films, a mix of recent (The Shipping News, which I liked, and The Man Who Knew Too Little, which had its moments, but after having just seen Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, anything would seem like a letdown) and vintage (Mister Roberts, which I saw and liked, and The Quiet Man, which I've not yet seen) and schlocky (The Thing from Another World, which I'm saving for a special occasion that has not yet manifested itself).  I've been the beneficiary not only of Larry's largesse but also his catholic tastes: one memorable Wal-Mart bag contained both Daniel Aronofsky's first film, "Pi," and Dude, Where's My Car?  Larry is no film snob.
But you're here because I mentioned The Great Dictator (1940; dir. and written by Charles Chaplin, starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Billy Gilbert, Maurice Moscovich).
The French studio Mk2) and Warner Brothers have teamed up in this country to produce The Chaplin Collection, which restores and presents all of Charlie Chaplin's films in 2-disc editions.  The Great Dictator (1940) is Chaplin's first talkie; I've not yet seen any of the other films in the Collection's version of them, but this one was beautifully restored and provides the viewer with a choice of the original mono or a Dolby 5.1 soundtrack (I watched with the 5.1 soundtrack, which was most effective during the opening battle sequences but otherwise added little to the viewing experience).  What is amazing to me, as I think about this film 64 years after its release, is that it still works as Chaplin intended, but to his first audience, having just witnessed Hitler dominating Europe and then well into the bombing of Britain, this film must have been electric.  Chaplin's dual role as a Jewish barber and as "Adenoid Hynkel" could have been pure silliness, and certainly there is comedy in this film; but Chaplin also wants his American audience in particular, with Pearl Harbor being still over a year away and widespread anti-Semitism here resulting in political pressure to keep down the number of Jewish immigrants allowed into the U.S., to get a small taste of the consequences of Hitler's rise to power for Jews in Europe.  Perhaps the film's single-most effective shot is also, in 1940, its riskiest from a narrative point of view: stormtroopers have just broken into the courtyard of a Jewish family in the ghetto as they look for Chaplin's barber (who is wanted for having earlier assaulted some soldiers) and Schultz, a Nazi whose life the barber had saved in the first World War and who is protecting the barber and his neighbors; as the stormtroopers move into the house and we hear shouting and noise inside but don't witness it, the camera pans away to a bird in its cage hanging on a wall.  The camera lingers there long enough for the viewer to draw the analogy for ourselves.
What impressed me again and again as I watched this film were moments just like that: how thoroughly this film was thought out.  Much of that has to do with the fact that Chaplin was in complete control of its making.  Chaplin wrote, produced and directed it; somewhat like what happened with Citizen Kane, United Artists wouldn't back the film financially because it feared that the film would only further anger Hitler, so Chaplin financed it himself.  But beyond that control is the skill in its very plotting.  The opening scenes, for example, show Chaplin as a member of a German artillery unit in WW I.  We're not told who he is.  The enemy breaks through the front lines, so the artillerymen join the infantry; in a literal fog of war, Chaplin's character gets separated from his batallion and ends up being pursued by Allied soldiers.  He escapes from them, eventually, by flying off with Schultz in his airplane.  The plane crashes, and we learn that the war has ended.  Chaplin, disoriented, is taken to a hospital.  Thus far, Chaplin's character's adventures have mirrored those of Hitler in that war: as a German infantryman, Hitler was in a hospital recovering from a mustard gas attack when he learned that the Armistice had been signed.  So, here I am watching and thinking, Okay: we're going to see how this man becomes a dictator.  And through a series of newspaper headlines, we learn of the Depression and the corresponding rise of Hynkel.  When we see Hynkel give a speech in screamingly-funny faux German, it's, of course, Chaplin, but with no sign at all of the mild-mannered artilleryman we'd been watching.  It slowly dawns on your dim-witted viewer that Hynkel and the artilleryman are NOT the same character (we're informed at the outset of the film of the "entirely co-incidental" similarity in appearance between Hynkel and a Jewish barber, but, unless I really missed something early on, we're not told whether it's Hynkle or the barber we see in the opening sequence).  And when we learn that the artilleryman, as we see him return to the ghetto to resume his trade as a barber, has been hospitalized for years with amnesia and doesn't even remember the war, I conclude (perhaps to save some face) that that confusion is deliberate.  What if Hitler had suffered the same fate--amnesia, real or figurative, about the war--and not stewed with shame and rage over Germany's defeat as he lay in his hospital bed?  Would we be fighting this war?  Also, I don't know how widely-known this was at the time, but Hitler had some Jewish ancestry in him.  It's ironic enough that Hynkle's look-alike is a Jew; to know of Hitler's ancestry would have only sweetened that irony.
Some comments about Chaplin's audacity and integrity in making this film:  Something it was important for me to be made aware of, as the documentary accompanying the DVD does, was Chaplin's power--not just his celebrity--in the '30s.  To use his films as he did to depict such things as the suffering of the lower class and the dehumanization of the factory AND command a mass audience strikes me as extraordinary.  But The Great Dictator, aside from being a swipe at Hitler, must also be seen as a swipe at those who had argued in favor of appeasement.  Though, because its making was delayed for a couple of years due to Chaplin's having to finance the film himself, it's not quite as prescient in 1940 as it would have been in, say, 1938, it's still extraordinary to think that this man is using his art to expose someone as powerful as Hitler is by mocking him when, it must have seemed, no one was willing to stop him when they had had the chance(s) to do so.  Michael Moore is notably lacking in testosterone by comparison.
And one final comment, speaking of art: Having seen Modern Times before, I already knew how good Chaplin is at physical comedy.  But there are two moments in The Great Dictator that are both funny and beautiful at the same time.  The first is when the barber is trying to fight off two stormtroopers and Hannah (Goddard), trying to help the barber, instead whacks him on the head with a frying pan.  Dazed, the barber heads up the street, stepping on and off the curb in a sort of rhythmic stumbling that is every bit as elegant as Gene Kelly's very similar bit in the famous "Singin' in the Rain" scene from the film of the same name.  The other is Hynkle's dance with the large globe in his office.  It is his plaything--he can do with it what he wants as he bounces it off his heels, his head, his hands . . . it is both graceful to watch and not a little sinister when we think that, Gee, Hitler's kinda been doin' the same thing . . . and then the globe explodes.

No comments: