Charlie Chaplin, Political Discourse and The Great Dictator

Charlie Chaplin and political discourse are practically inseparable entities when it comes to Chaplin’s films. His ideals, philosophies, and beliefs become embodied by his characters, their dialogue, and frankly every aspect of his films. He develops his theories of humanity and worldly issues through the medium of comedy, interlaced with necessary and clearly marked moments of seriousness. Chaplin’s brilliant use and application of cinematic discourse is undeniably and notoriously displayed in his 1940 film, The Great Dictator. This paper will attempt to explore the concept of discourse as it is applied, illustrated, and portrayed through Chaplin’s direction in this particular film.

In order to effectively and efficiently discuss the concept of discourse, it is necessary to first define it as relevant to the purpose of this conversation. This papers interpretation and definition of discourse will be more specific to the political application of the concept. The term discourse will refer to any communication, visual or auditory, that carries with it a particular ideology that is intended to convey a message to the audience. It is without a doubt that Charlie Chaplin employs these tactics in all of his films, however The Great Dictator challenges a particular political ideology in such a bold and unique way that sets it apart from the rest of the directors filmography. Additionally, the history of discourse surrounding this film and the public’s perception of it provides an interesting lens to examine the effects of external political rhetoric and environments on the interpretation of cinema. This will be discussed further in the later portions of this paper.

First and foremost it is critical to analyze the political discourse of this film through its most essential lens, that its primary focus is that of comedic relief, at least initially. It is evident upon even a brief examination of Chaplin’s filmography that he believes that comedy is a necessary form of communication and that laughter is a gateway to understanding. The Great Dictator in its role as a comedic relief during the 1930s and 1940s era of World Wars, provides an opportunity for the public to step away from the seriousness of the, then, current political state and see it in a different light. Yet, Chaplin simultaneously ensures that political discourse remains the primary focus of his comedy. He intertwines his criticisms of Hitler’s regime with moments of laughter through his development of the over-exaggerated characterization of Adolph Hitler as Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel. The purpose of Hynkel’s character is best exemplified in the early scene in which Hynkel is addressing Germany in a speech that is obviously mirroring Hitler’s notorious speeches. Hynkel’s character speaks in a “highly comedic gibberish” (Daub 453) version of the German language that invites the audience into the mockery that is Chaplin’s Tomania. His use of comedic dialogue paired with the visual striking background of what’s obviously supposed to mimic Nazi uniforms and propaganda is a very obvious statement of protest from Chaplin. He highlights the absolute ridiculousness of Nazi Germany and the delusion of Hitler’s ideological beliefs. Hynkel’s tone in the speech exemplifies Hitler’s strong and seemingly powerful voice, but the nonsense dialogue points out to the audience that behind the deceptive mask of power the Nazi party holds up, there is only foolishness and dangerous delusions.

However comedy is not the only medium Chaplin uses to deliver his message in this film, The Great Dictator also marks a critical and unique point in Chaplin’s career in that he distinctly and deliberately transitions from comedy to a more serious purpose of discussing politics. (King 267) This is clearly evident in the film’s most notable scene where the nameless Jewish barber gives a speech in place of Hynkel. The barber delivers a passionate, yet clear and concise message that distinctly “breaks the fourth wall”, or speaks directly to the audience. By doing this Chaplin shifts the film’s intention from comedic relief to a serious appeal to the public. The lack of complex visual imagery in the background of the barber, combined with the medium close up shot of him speaking work to establish visually the gravity of the barber’s dialogue. By having this particular set up, Chaplin dramatically distinguishes this scenes speech from the one given by Hynkel towards the beginning of the film. In no way are the two scenes alike which allows for Chaplin to distinguish the political ideology of Hynkel, in reality the Nazi party, from the ideology of the Jewish barber, who represents his own voice. Chaplin uses this platform to express his concerns for humanity in a way that is direct and undeniable. This final moment is perhaps the most important in regards to the way it brings political discourse into the forefront of the film, in that rather than lacing its within other visual and auditory messages in the scene, discourse becomes fully the visual and auditory message in the scene.

Equally important to the discourse within the film is the discourse surrounding the film in the form of public opinions, reviews, and criticisms. In this aspect The Great Dictator is unsurprisingly yet again a unique case example of this particular concept of political discourse, in that depending on the point in history in which one examines the film, its purpose could be interpreted in vastly different ways. At the time of the films release and for much of the twentieth century, it was met with harsh criticism and opposition in that it was accused of having Communist and Socialist ties. It marked a downturn in Chaplin’s public perception and films released after The Great Dictator were not highly regarded. Unfortunately this demonstrated that, according to public opinion at the time, Chaplin did not successfully transition from silent films to talkies, nor from comedy to serious film. However, when viewing the film in a modern political context, Chaplin’s message has a different kind of sincerity. Nowadays, his plea for strengthening our democracy by means of the people is well-regarded, infamous even. It is the mark of a good filmmaker, and philosopher if you will, that the message they intended to convey remains as relevant and powerful even almost a century later.

To summarize, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is a unique and important film to examine when it comes to analyzing the implementation of political discourse in cinema. It offers a comedic perspective as well as a more serious and somber one all within the perspective and direction of Chaplin’s political ideals, philosophies, and beliefs. The film translates these ideologies effectively through its purposeful use of imagery and sound in such a way that remains powerful and relevant even almost eighty years later. Viewing the film under modern political circumstances is particularly striking in that it highlights issues not too far from ones facing our society today. Chaplin’s infamous speech, although not perceived well at the time, has aged with grace in the way that a piece of timeless brilliance can. His development of political thought through film has made his works, like The Great Dictator, essential markers in the analysis of discourse in cinema.

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justice studies and political science student at Westminster College of Salt Lake City

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justice studies and political science student at Westminster College of Salt Lake City

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