Film class — week 9

19 October 2006, 2037 EDT

Film #9 “The Great Dictator” (1940). We viewed it Tuesday.

Readings for Thursday: J. Michael Waller, “Ridicule as a weapon,” White Paper No. 7, Institute of World Politics, January 2006.

This is a terrific Charlie Chaplin film, which satirizes Nazi Germany under Adolph Hitler — and takes on Mussolini and war as well.

Roger Ebert’s review of the film accurately describes Chaplin’s portrayal of Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomania. Chaplin, writes Ebert,

…did not find Hitler at all funny, needless to say, and so although he uses his own comic genius to inspire the movie, the comedy is never neutral. It is jugular, as he creates a Hynkel who is a vain, strutting buffoon, given to egomaniacal rages and ridiculous posturing. Charlie never for a moment allows us to laugh with Hynkel, but only at him, and Hynkel thus becomes the only totally unsympathetic character Chaplin has ever played.

Waller’s short paper about ridicule is interesting and the class talked about the broad use of ridicule to reduce the authority of powerful figures — even those who are not dictators. Ridicule, in other words, is a potentially effective means by which to challenge the legitimacy of those who employ power for dubious purposes. It can serve as a non-violent weapon of the weak!

Chaplin also plays
a Jewish barber, who is not named, and much of the film chronicles this character’s life. He fought in World War I, spent many years in an institution because of an head injury sustained in the war, and returned to his shop just in time to suffer persecution from Hynkel’s stormtroopers.

Indeed, Hynkel’s dictatorship makes life quite miserable for the barber and his neighbors and the barber ends up in a concentration camp after exhibiting some willingness to resist the persecution. Many of his neighbors fled to a neighboring country (later invaded by Tomania). Note: the film was made before the Nazis created the death camps and pursued “the final solution” against the Jews.

Late in the film, an unlikely series of events causes Hynkel’s followers to believe that the barber is the dictator. This affords Chaplin an opportunity to give a 6 minute speech — as himself, really.

As I wrote last week, the class is viewing a number of comedies in order to think about meaningful critiques of world politics. Dictators and fascists make for easy targets, of course, but this film also takes on the folly (and fog) of war and contrasts the political machinations occuring in the great hall to the day-to-day life of the ordinary people (who cut hair, wash laundry, etc.)

I highly recommend the film to anyone who has not viewed it and think that it makes a nice introduction to thinking about the comedy of global politics.

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