Imagine you’re a world-famous comedian. You hear about a powerful anti-Semite who’s pushing his way across Europe. Maybe you feel in some way responsible, since this bully has based his look specifically on your most iconic creation; maybe you’re simply a humanist who recognizes a tyrant when you see one. So you do the one thing you can to express your dissent on a major level: make a comedy that ridicules this specific figure as a pathetic little boob.
It’s easy to forget the sheer cojones Charles Chaplin showed when he attacked Adolf Hitler in this 1940 satire about a despot named Adenoid Hynkel and a Little Tramp--ish look-alike barber who’s a stand-in for a population of persecuted Jews. Hollywood had already tentatively dipped its toes into antifascist waters (Confessions of a Nazi Spy had come out the year before; Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm was released the previous June), but Chaplin was the first to use laughter as an assault weapon on national socialism. His first complete talkie, The Great Dictator suffers from unfortunate speechifying (that climactic plea!), but Chaplin’s brilliant mockery of the German chancellor’s histrionic rants simply wouldn’t have the bite were they done silently. Still, the film’s best sequence remains wordless: Chaplin’s dictator treating the world as a balloon, rump-bumping and bouncing it around his office. It feels like a lyrical bit of slapstick, and yet still has the power to inspire chills almost 70 years later.—David Fear
Opens Fri 25; IFC. Find showtimes
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