“To those who can hear me, I say ‘Do not despair’.”
The Great Dictator is one of Charlie Chaplin’s most famous films. Although the film is filled with Chaplin’s remarkable comedic abilities, he manages to carry within it a powerful social critique, one delivered during one of the darkest times in human history. The film, produced in 1940, provides a comedic critique of the fascist movement in Nazi Germany (Tomainia) and also Italy (Bacteria).
The main character of the movie is an unnamed Jewish Barber. His lack of a name enables him to be representative of the hoi polloi. The first scenes of the movie capture him in combat in World War 1, where it is clear that he doesn’t know what he is doing. Even though his actions here are clearly comedic, the absurdity of them allows us to see how absurd war is. War is unnatural and it is something the Barber finds distasteful, as can be seen in the final scene of the movie.
Chaplin pokes fun at the Hitler’s and Mussolini’s regimes using macaronic dialogue. This is where false cognates and stereotypes of a language are used for comedic affect. As a result, Hynkel, the dictator, appears ridiculous, with much of his dialogue appearing to be guttural coughing and grunting. Despite Hynkel’s demeanor and his appearance (akin to Hitler), he is a dangerous man. He is more concerned about crushing rebellion than fueling war efforts (he is only barely persuaded to spare the ammunitions workers who had gone on strike). He has an intense hatred of the Jews that is never fully explained. He simply hates them. Later on, he says that he will go after brunettes, a statement made even more absurd because it is his own hair color.
Even though he was not the first to speak out against the Nazis (the Three Stooges beat him to it by a few months), his work did have just as strong of an affect. It was banned in much of Europe during the war. It was also used in the United Kingdom as a propaganda piece by the British.
By the end of the movie, the Barber, through a case of mistaken identity, ends up on Hynkel’s stand, told to give a victory speech after conquering Osterlich (Austria). What follows is one of the most famous speeches in all of movies. Rather than preaching against free speech and democracy, as would be expected of Hynkel, the Barber begins to speak of a unified humanity.
“We all want to help one another, human beings are like that. We all want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world, there is room for everyone and the Earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful.”
The full speech (which can be seen here) is a timeless piece speaking to humanity in terms of equality and unity, and most of all, the power of the individuals. An individual acting alone may not be the most powerful of people, but when one person stands up against wrong doing, others who may have hesitated will soon follow. It is leading by example towards a greater world. “Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. […] In the name of democracy, let us all unite!”