Switzerland became Charlie Chaplin’s home after he was hounded out of the U.S. in 1952, so it’s perhaps fitting that the Zurich Film Festival hosted the European premiere of feature documentary “The Real Charlie Chaplin.”
Playing in the festival’s documentary competition section, “The Real Charlie Chaplin” is an innovative montage of film clips, behind-the-scenes footage, newly-unearthed audio recordings, dramatic reconstructions and personal archive about cinema’s first and arguably greatest icon – tracing his meteoric rise from the slums of Victorian London to Hollywood stardom and eventual banishment.
The darker side of Chaplin’s life is explored too, from the treatment of his ex-wives (his second wife Lita Grey was just 15 when their relationship began) to his eccentric working methods.
The film is directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney, whose acclaimed 2016 debut feature doc “Notes on Blindness” won the British Independent Film Award for Best Documentary Film. That doc caught the eye of producer Ben Limberg, who had secured access from Chaplin’s estate to his personal archives, including his home movies.
Both Middleton and Spinney live in South London, not far from where Chaplin grew up and first trained to be acrobat. They were drawn to the project as a chance to explore Chaplin’s remarkable rags to riches tale, and his status as the first modern celebrity. “He starts making films in 1914, and within two years he is the most famous person in the world – and famous in a way that no one had been before,” says Spinney. “It feels like there’s a direct line from there to today. He was the first person who people felt they had a relationship with that was mediated through a screen.”
For Middleton, the way that Chaplain’s films and creative output map onto the events of his lifetime were also appealing. As well as becoming the first modern celebrity in the 1910s and cementing his reputation in the 1920s, his films of the 1930s – such as “Modern Times” – respond to the politics and economics of the era. In the 1940s he confronts Hitler and fascism with “The Great Dictator,” before being branded a communist and banned from the U.S. in the 1950s.
All of this, of course, has been explored in great detail in countless Chaplin books and documentaries before. “We were conscious that we had to try and approach it from a different angle, and to find a fresh perspective,” says Spinney, explaining that they wanted to make a film that could both be an entry point for people who knew of Chaplin but weren’t familiar with his work, while offering something new to Chaplin aficionados. “We also wanted to try to do something that reflected how puzzling, fascinating and difficult to access we found Chaplin himself.”
This explains why the doc begins with a quote from Chaplin’s friend Max Eastman, which suggests that there is an unknowable quality to Chaplin. “Enjoy any Charlie Chaplin you have the good luck to encounter,” Eastman wrote. “But don’t try to link them up to anything you can grasp. There are too many of them.”
“The deeper we went into it, the more versions of Chaplin we found,” says Spinney. “So we tried to find a form that was quite restless.”
Finding narrator Pearl Mackie was a breakthrough, says Middleton. Mackie acts as warm, playful almost Puck-ish guide for the audience “just sitting on their shoulder, edging it in different directions,” he says.
Three key dramatic reconstructions, based on rediscovered audio recordings, also anchor the documentary. One is based on a recently rediscovered interview with Chaplin’s childhood friend, Effie Wisdom, who grew up with him in South London. In a glorious, almost Dickensian, cockney accent, she tells the film historian Kevin Brownlow how Chaplin “used to talk like me. Common.” It’s the accent Chaplin later abandoned in the States.
Another re-enacts the notorious 1947 press conference for “Monsieur Verdoux” where reporters harangued the actor about his alleged communist sympathies. Only a fragment of this audio recording had been archived but a long search led the filmmakers to the original reels in a garage in San Francisco.
Middleton says these reconstructions create “present tense pockets within the film in which the audience has an opportunity to settle in a little bit more, because it is so restless at times – a sort of kaleidoscopic tumble.” Just, it might be said, like Charlie Chaplin himself.