Criterion Critique: The Great Dictator

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Stormtroopers, a Palpatine-like demagogue, suspenseful crescendos, made up languages, and an anti-imperial conspiracy to blow up an empire’s emblematic palace of power—I was convinced I was watching an installment of Star Wars for the better half of this film. Junior editor Tom Bevis, peeved, assured me that this film is in fact Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator before he wearily implied my lack of competence as a film critic by asking if I had even looked at the cover. I told him I had glanced at it, but assumed someone had misplaced the DVD in a case with alternative art for A Clockwork Orange.

Inside, there’s a booklet featuring essays with greater insights than I have to offer. What novel thing can be said about a film so beloved? The physical humor and drollery, trite in nature, coupled with the contrasting solemn reality of fascism in the 20th century have made this film a classic. To criticize the two rising dictators it satirizes, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini—caricatured as Adenoid Hynkel and Benzino Napaloni—was against propriety when The Great Dictator came out in 1940 before the U.S. was involved in WWII.  The charming wit and critical message of this film have been applauded, and I have no contentions with that.

Instead of iterating what’s been said enough, in honor of election season, I’d like to draw parallels to today, attesting to The Great Dictator’s timelessness. Americans have been quick to afford political candidates their opinions, but are often exaggerated in their criticisms. Expedient attacks by comparison to Hitler are commonplace, vilifying whatever politician is against your predilection. If not Hitler, the Anti-Christ. In fairness, the Trumpster isn’t a genocidal maniac, and I doubt Hilary’s questionable sincerity is enough to usher in the apocalypse. But let’s check just to be safe.

Chaplin points out the irony of Hitler’s vision for an Aryan race: “‘A blonde world.’ ‘And a brunette dictator.’” This irony is overstated, in the movie and in general, as Hitler only held blue eyes and blonde hair as a high ideal, not a strict standard—but it still stands. Can we pin the toupee on the Trump? In the GOP debate, Trump infamously retorted to Rand Paul, “I never attacked [Paul] or his looks, and believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter right there.” The irony of Trump’s jest is that the he looks like a supervillain who had a freak accident in a tanning salon. Besides, politicians aren’t known for their looks. I can’t remember mentioning Nancy Pelosi or Condoleezza Rice alongside Cameron Diaz, Christina Applegate, and Jennifer Love Hewitt during the typical talk in junior high. If Trump is like Hitler, perhaps it’s because they’re both preoccupied with some silly, superficial shit that even they fail to measure up to.

In one of my favorite scenes, Shultz — Hynkel’s officer — begins to indict his policy against the Jews. Hynkel responds: “Shultz. You need a vacation. Fresh air. A little outdoor exercise. I shall send you to a concentration camp.” Politicians are masters of euphemisms. This was certainly observed in the Democratic debate. I can’t remember hearing “abortion” once, but “a woman’s right to choose” was the catch phrase used in its stead. For or against it, the cunning rhetoric is still amusing. Who remembers Hilary Clinton “misspeaking” about her trip to Bosnia in 2008 after video footage contradicted her statements? She had largely exaggerated her landing in a combat zone, claiming to have escaped her plane under sniper fire. But rather than admit to lying, or at least embellishing, she further claimed she misspoke when her story came into question. Be it Hynkel, Hitler, or Hilary, remember to read between the lines. Even in a bit of dramatic irony, the crafty Iago said, “Men should be what they seem, / Or those that be not, would they might seem none!”

But the important lesson of The Great Dictator is given in the impassioned, and memorable, closing scene in which the Jewish barber, Chaplin (who also plays Hynkel), and Schultz comically attempt to escape prison. The barber is mistaken as Hynkel, and he is called to the podium to give a speech. He argues that the “…goodness in men… cries out for universal brotherhood.” He builds upon the notion that “we think too much and feel too little,” that humanity has hardened its heart with greed and knowledge, sullying the essential goodness in mankind. While the simple message of honest conviction is difficult to not be affected by, perhaps this is wishful thinking — much like the criticisms of Bernie Sanders. James Madison, in The Federalist, wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” If man is essentially good, is there a need to impose laws upon them, or walls around them?  The philosophical quandary is larger than this article. But it’s hard to believe in the essential goodness of humanity with the sordid affairs going on in this world, Trump being the least of them. This is principally Chaplin’s point; the dignity of man has been distorted. If it ever existed is beyond me.

Less idealistic, The Great Dictator precedes the establishment in its condemnation of the Nazis. Chaplin fuses his insight with his comic antics, making a lighthearted and simultaneously serious film. I’m not a political pundit, and I’m hardly a film critic, but even beyond the outcry against fascism, there are common qualities between the burlesque figures in the film and politicians today. Pick The Great Dictator up, and you, too, can play pin the toupee on the Trump. Hairpiece and orange sold separately.

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Author: Garrett Gretler

Garrett is a 24-year-old writer who records and performs hip-hop music under the moniker Introspection. He’s currently working on a release titled “Man Behind The Myth”, using different mythoi as allegories about his life. Garrett has finished the first chapter to a number of novels. He also enjoys rhetorical and expository writing. Sometimes semi-professionally. He works at a book store and attends school full-time as an English major. Film is a fresh avocation, but critique is an old pastime. Garrett’s favorite movies include Enemy, Seconds, The Life Aquatic, Persepolis, Brazil, and Children of Paradise.

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