Sunday, 11 March 2007

Film: The Great Dictator

Lowdown: Chaplin takes on Hitler.
Trivia junkies will surely point at the fact that Chaplin and Hitler were born on the same week. I, however, will gladly settle with stating that Chaplin's take on Hitler (and Mussolini, for that matter, as well as the rest of your average generic dictator) is quite the masterpiece. A dated masterpiece, in certain respects, but still a tour de force of original film making.
The Great Dictator is built on a simple analogy. On one hand you have Charlie Chaplin playing a Jewish barber guy, who just happens to look and behave the way Chaplin's tramp character does. This Jewish guy is a well meaning person who is not that good at fighting - as evident by the opening World War 1 scenes, yet he is truly a hero when it comes to taking care of his friends.
On the other hand you have Charlie Chaplin playing a character that cannot be mistaken for Hitler, even if its name is slightly different. This character is abusive, feeding on hate and fear to build its own power, as well as on the aid of its lieutenants (notably Garbage, who takes the role of Goebbels).
The fact the Jewish barber and the great dictator happen to look pretty similar to one another is well used by the film, both in making its point against fascism and in advancing the film's plot. As the dictator's storm-troopers wreck havoc with the Jewish people and then plot to invade their peaceful neighbor country, the ground is set for some major false identification issues to take place.
There are several key elements that make The Great Dictator a great film. First, I'll concede: It was released in 1940, and it isn't as funny as you might expect, and at a bit longer than 2 hours it is a tad too long and too slow for its own good, and it is obvious that Chaplin has a bit of an issue with doing a talking film (and in the Great Dictator he talks a lot). However, first and foremost, this film will be remembered as the first true stand the free world took in front of Hitler: I mean, yes, the film was released after the war was started (but before the USA joined it), but preparations must have taken place way before it started. Chaplin's ability to forecast some of the events that will take place, at least as far as what Hitler is going to do, is phenomenal. That said, even Chaplin was unable to forecast the lengths through which the Nazis would go in their handling of Jews and other pests.
The next ingredient of this masterpiece is a collection of some truly ingenious scenes. There's the scene in which the Hitler character plays with a globe like ball in a weird dream like context, a scene which has become very famous. There is also the scene in which Hitler and Mussolini sit on chairs that can be adjusted for height, and in their great dictator like foolishness they constantly try to be the one that is taller: this scene has been replicated by so many other comedies it would be easy to ignore Chaplin's as yet another copy, yet this is the real thing.
The film's final scene, though, is its greatest one as well. Chaplin looks at the camera and gives us a heart warming speech about his true agenda, quoting from the bible and appealing to the humanity inside us to knock off this man made evil that is fascism and work together for the betterment of humanity. And how right he is!
Best scene: If I was to ignore previously mentioned scenes, I would say the best scene as far as comedy is concerned is the scene in which, earlier on, the Hitler character gives out a speech to its adoring massive crowd. Chaplin speaks in gibberish, yet through the strategic placement of carefully selected words - say, "Juden" - and through the intonation of his voice, done in a manner so Hitler like it's scary - you understand exactly what he's talking about. And the result is roaringly funny.
Overall: A mighty 4 star effort that would have been much more in the past.

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