When “The Great Dictator,” Charles Chaplin’s bitter satire of Adolf Hitler, opened in 1940, more than a year before the U.S. entered World War II, many were outraged that a British citizen had used his power as one of the most popular men in the world to create such a devastating depiction of what life was like for Jews under the Nazis. Even today, the film is unique in its power to provoke both hilarity and horror. This remarkable documentary uses recently discovered behind-the-scenes color footage, shot by Chaplin’s older brother Sydney, as a peg on which to hang a new analysis of the film, the circumstances in which it was made and the effects it had. A must for film buffs, this accomplished piece of movie history will be mandatory viewing on specialty TV channels, in film courses and at festivals, and will have a long ancillary life.
“Dictator” was the first film in which the beloved Tramp spoke, and the last in which he appeared. Chaplin plays two roles, the Tramp, who is Jewish (though Chaplin was not), and the dictator of a mythical European country much like Germany. Chaplin and Hitler actually had a surprising number of things in common, apart from their similar moustaches: They were born within a week of each other in April 1889; they experienced harsh, impoverished childhoods; and they aspired to be artists — Chaplin escaped poverty by entering the theater, while Hitler strove to find acceptance as a painter but was rejected by the Vienna Academy (how different history might have been, notes narrator Kenneth Branagh, had he been accepted).
Ironies abound. Hitler lived, homeless, on the streets of Vienna just like the impoverished tramp Chaplin portrayed in countless films, and eventually found refuge in the Vienna Men’s Home, which was supported partly by Jewish charities. Henry Ford, the American motor car manufacturer satirized in Chaplin’s “Modern Times” (1936), was a virulent anti-Semite who seems to have admired Hitler. As Hitler and his Nazi Party rose to prominence, Chaplin’s popularity throughout the world became greater than ever; he was mobbed by fans on a 1931 trip to Berlin, which annoyed the Nazis, who published a book in 1934 titled “The Jews Are Looking at You,” in which the comedian was described as “a disgusting Jewish acrobat.” Ivor Montagu, a close friend of Chaplin’s, relates that he sent Chaplin a copy of the book and always believed this was the genesis of “Dictator.”
The film went into production just after the outbreak of war in Europe, on Sept. 9, 1939, and, like many of Chaplin’s later films, it had a slow shoot. In fact, Chaplin changed his original ending (tantalizing glimpses of which appear in the color footage) in response to the fall of France, replacing it with the impassioned speech that climaxes the picture, addressing himself directly to cinema audiences around the world. In contrast to the timid attitude of Hollywood companies of the time, Chaplin’s personally financed film pulls few punches in its depiction of the harassment and even murder of Jews, though there was no way at the time that Chaplin could have known the full extent of the horror going on in Europe.
Kevin Brownlow, the British film historian who has done as much as anyone to explore the riches of Hollywood’s past and who made the masterful docu “The Unknown Chaplin,” has achieved, with co-director Michael Kloft, a great deal in a running time of less than an hour. Sydney Chaplin’s footage, which looks remarkably rich and beautiful, is integrated into scenes from “Dictator” and is of immense interest, not least for giving us glimpses of Chaplin the director at work.
A group of mostly elderly commentators, among them director Sidney Lumet, who attended the film’s world premiere, provide useful insights into the period in which the film was made and contemporary reactions to it. Author Ray Bradbury notes, “Comedy is the greatest way to attack a totalitarian regime,” but not everyone at the time thought the Nazis were a fit subject for comedy. Other interviewees include Chaplin’s son Sydney, the late director Bernard Vorhaus, critic Stanley Kauffmann, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and Nikola Radosevic, a Yugoslav who reveals that, as a cinema projectionist during the war, he substituted a copy of the film for a German production at a screening for German troops. An SS officer became so enraged that he started shooting at the screen.
Yet Reinhard Spitzy, a member of Hitler’s inner circle, is certain Hitler himself saw the film, more than once, and that he would have liked it, because he had a sense of humor. Albert Speer wrote to Oona Chaplin many years after the war to tell her, ” ‘The Great Dictator’ was the finest ‘documentary’ on the Third Reich.”
Whatever one’s personal response to Chaplin’s film is, there’s no doubt about the passion and even courage that went into the making of it. This concise but crisply made doc provides fresh insights into one of the most important American films ever made.