Nazi Germany isn’t the right setting for slapstick. The Keystone Kops is one thing, but Kristallnacht and the Anschluss is something apart. It’s impossible not to feel queasy, watching a comic sketch of a plucky Jewish laundrywoman who leans down from her second story window to clang saucepans against the heads of stormtroopers scrawling J-E-W across storefront windows.
The gags in Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 talkie The Great Dictator are often hysterically funny – try watching the send-up of Hitler’s speeches without collapsing – and at other times seem like obligatory setups included to fulfill the requirements of the genre. Although you recognize the jokes, in the face of a deepening evil they seem pathetically small and insignificant. Think of Chaplin’s hapless barber fleeing one batch of stormtroopers, only to find another wall of them rounding the corner. He skids to a stop on one leg, and aboutfaces to rush back into the first squadron. He screeches halt again, hopping on that one leg as if to brake, and holds onto his hat as he dashes off in another direction, and then a third rank comes hemming him in, and he’s surrounded, and the Nazis string him up by the neck to hang him from a lamppost.
It’s not funny at all.
It’s our beloved clown practicing his art in hell because it’s the only answer he has for fascism.
The Great Dictator was released before the United States joined the war, when Hitler was an invincible cloud darkening skies all over Europe. Even so, I think that American audiences at the time probably couldn’t fathom the true horrors to come, and that to them a policeman stealing potatoes from a Jewish grocer – a policeman! – was a pretty awful injustice. Chaplin himself later wrote that if he had known the extent of Nazi monstrosities he could never have made this film.
But a world without The Great Dictator would be a lesser place. The ending is spellbinding. Through a series of prince-and-pauper mishaps, Chaplin’s lowly Jewish barber swaps places with the dictator and ends up on stage in a Nazi rally. Someone whispers to him that he must stand and give a speech, that to do so is “our only hope.” And Chaplin’s barber whispers, “hope,” in a small voice, and you remember his scampering within the tightening walls of stormtroops, and you see that he knows he’s just one clown before a juggernaut, and that his old tricks cannot match the coming evils so he must try something new. Chaplin stands, then, and with fearless earnesty declaims the wickedry infesting a world that sweeps aside the tenderness of human connection. Even in the face of totalitarian imperatives to pursue efficiency, he says, kindness and goodness are still treasures worthy of our Promethean effort.
And then he asks the heroine, the once-plucky laundrywoman now beaten down and weeping in a faraway field, to look up, look up to the skies, because the clouds are parting and rays of sunlight are poking through the gloom, and they are the answer to a prayer that our souls may be given wings to soar into a kindlier world without hate or greed or brutality.
He speaks in the voice of a generation that is preparing to shoulder an awful burden in defense of all the best things of civilization. Sufferings must be borne to let live the hope that black clouds will blow past and the sun will shine again. But he’s speaking for himself too – still that short and lonely Keystone clown with a coat too small and pants pulled up too high, his hair waggling over his brow as he watches the world disintegrate. He touches his hand to his forehead when he’s finished, and seems taken aback by what he’s attempted.
Of course we know now that the black clouds don’t pass. There are stormclouds behind them, and more roiling yet beyond, and we’re all still reaching for rainbows we’ll never touch. That’s what will remain with you after the fade to black – the memory of horrible sacrifice executed in the name of an impossible dream. For well do we know how small and dry are the fruits of triumph.