The Great Dictator (1940)

Premise: Dictator Adenoid Hynkel tries to expand his empire while a poor Jewish barber tries to avoid persecution from Hynkel’s regime.

Immediately after The Great Dictator ended, I rewound the movie and rewatched the five minute speech at the end again. Now, while sitting in the afterglow of my first viewing of the film, I am really hard-pressed to think of any movie moments that are as emotionally affecting, timeless in their relevance, and as intensely powerful as that speech was. I am not being the least bit hyperbolic when I say that with one viewing, I’m confident in saying The Great Dictator is a true masterpiece.

This film encompasses exactly what makes art such a powerful tool. According to my scant research through teary eyes and an elevated heart rate after the movie, Chaplin claimed not to be aware of the exact extent of the Nazi’s atrocities. He said that if he knew what was going on, he wouldn’t have been able to depict them in a satirical light.

Yet, The Great Dictator finds an undeniably unique comedic voice in the way it depicts its satire of Nazi rule. There’s something to the way the comedy is handled that I’m still wrapping my head around. The film mines tragedy and atrocity for comedic effect while retaining a level of respect for what is happening on and off the screen. It’s hard to articulate so soon after the seeing the movie, but it feels like Chaplin is shining a light on what’s happening through the lens of comedy without making it at the expense of actual suffering. It’s a tightrope that Chaplin handles with great care.

I’m positively blown away by the sheer audacity of The Great Dictator‘s existence. It was released in 1940. A year after Hitler invaded Poland, a year before the US entered the war, and 5 years before the end of the war. Seeing it now, it’s hard to put myself into the mindset of 1940’s viewers. But knowing the history of the war and Hitler’s atrocities, I’m so incredibly impressed that this film exists at all.

That’s what I mean when I say that The Great Dictator encompasses what’s remarkable about art in general. Chaplin’s work here is packed with a power that is undeniable. The comedy serves as a way to undermine a real life regime that is in the midst of committing some of the worst atrocities in human history. Chaplin’s portrayal of Hynkel as a bumbling, incoherent dictator works to strip the power the real life Hitler had over people. It is a very powerful use of the film medium and when that power comes front and center in the speech in the last 5 minutes, it turns The Great Dictator into a higher level of art with a timeless message at its heart.

This was a movie watching experience unlike any other I’ve had in a long while. I know I have a tendency to say that the more impactful movie moments I watch will “stay with me for a while.” The impact and meaning of The Great Dictator, however, is something I don’t believe I will ever forget. Nor should I.

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