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The Filming Of The Great Dictator - Charlie Chaplin's Magnum Opus




While the Munich Agreement was being negotiated in Europe in the autumn of 1938, Charles Chapin was completing the first draft of a script that had been prepared with the utmost secrecy. There was a rumour that the man who created the Tramp had chosen to do his first talking movie. It was also reported that he would be portraying an Adolf Hitler-inspired figure.


In Jürgen Trimborn's biography about Leni Riefenstahl (the Nazi propaganda film-maker), it's mentioned that Charlie Chaplin and French director René Clair watched Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will together at a screening at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Filmmaker Luis Buñuel recalls Clair being alarmed by the film's impact, expressing concern that it should never be shown again as it could jeopardise the West



In contrast, Chaplin found humour in the film, drawing inspiration from it for his work in The Great Dictator. Chaplin viewed the film repeatedly to imitate Hitler's gestures and actions accurately. Trimborn proposes that Chaplin was influenced by Riefenstahl's film when deciding to create The Great Dictator. The speech at Hynkel's rally in the film, spoken in a mix of German-sounding gibberish, serves as a satirical portrayal of Hitler's powerful oratory style, which Chaplin carefully observed in newsreels.


Chaplin aimed to shed light on the increasing violence and oppression faced by Jews from the Nazis in the late 1930s, a reality conveyed to him through his close Jewish friends and colleagues in Europe. The repressive and militaristic nature of Nazi Germany was widely recognized at that time.



In 1942, Ernst Lubitsch's film "To Be or Not To Be" also touched on similar issues, incorporating a Hitler character with a case of mistaken identity. Reflecting on his own work, Chaplin later expressed regret, stating that he wouldn't have made the movie had he been aware of the full extent of the Nazis' atrocities. Following the revelations of the Holocaust, filmmakers spent nearly two decades grappling with how to approach and satirise the tragic era.



During the era when Hitler and the Nazi Party were gaining influence, Chaplin was achieving international fame. During a visit to Berlin in 1931, he was swarmed by fans, which irked the Nazis. Disliking his comedic style, they released a book titled The Jews Are Looking at You (1934), depicting Chaplin as "a distasteful Jewish performer" (despite his not being Jewish). Ivor Montagu, a close associate of Chaplin's, revealed that he sent Chaplin a copy of the book and believed that Chaplin decided to respond by creating 'Dictator'.


In the 1930s, artists and comedians often highlighted the similarity in moustaches between Hitler and Chaplin. Chaplin cleverly used this likeness to make an exception for his Little Tramp character.


In his memoir My Father, Charlie Chaplin, Chaplin's son Charles Chaplin Jr. described his father as being haunted by the similarities in background between him and Hitler; they were born four days apart in April 1889, and both had risen to their present heights from poverty. He wrote:

Their destinies were poles apart. One was to make millions weep, while the other was to set the whole world laughing. Dad could never think of Hitler without a shudder, half of horror, half of fascination. "Just think", he would say uneasily, "he's the madman, I'm the comic. But it could have been the other way around."

In 1938 and 1939, Chaplin developed the storyline for his film and commenced filming in September 1939, just after the start of World War II. The filming concluded approximately six months later. A TV documentary from 2002, named The Tramp and the Dictator, revealed previously unseen clips from the movie production (captured by Chaplin's older half-brother Sydney), showing Chaplin's early attempts at the film's conclusion, recorded prior to the fall of France.



Chaplin arranged for the film to be sent to Hitler, with an eyewitness verifying its delivery. Hitler's close associate, Albert Speer, refuted claims that the leader had watched it. Hitler's reaction to the film remains unknown, although there are reports suggesting he saw it on two occasions.


Interestingly, some of the storefront signs in the movie's portrayal of the ghetto display text in Esperanto, a language that Hitler criticized as an anti-German cultural threat sparked by the Jews.



After an extensive and painstaking period of revising and directing, Chaplin ultimately unveiled The Great Dictator in New York on October 15th, 1940. The historical context in which he was immersed during those two years was undeniably extraordinary. Despite England declaring war in September 1939, Chaplin, a British citizen residing in the United States since 1913, found himself in a nation resolved to remain neutral amidst the bloodshed in Europe.


Chaplin's decision to confront Hitler through film was a bold personal statement, reminiscent of his previous work in Shoulder Arms. The production of The Great Dictator caused controversy even before filming started, angering German and British diplomats in the United States and drawing Chaplin into the spotlight of celebrities targeted by the House of Un-American Activities.

“Any resemblance between Hynkel the Dictator and the Jewish barber is purely coincidental.” - Charlie Chaplin

There's no agreement between critics on the relationship between Chaplin's earlier Tramp character and the film's Jewish barber, but the trend is to view the barber as a variation on the theme. French film director François Truffaut later noted that early in the production, Chaplin said he would not play The Tramp in a sound film. Turner Classic Movies says that years later, Chaplin acknowledged a connection between The Tramp and the barber. Specifically, "There is some debate as to whether the unnamed Jewish barber is intended as the Tramp's final incarnation. Although in his autobiography he refers to the barber as the Little Tramp, Chaplin said in 1937 that he would not play the Little Tramp in his sound pictures." In My Autobiography, Chaplin would write, "Of course! As Hitler I could harangue the crowds all I wished. And as the tramp, I could remain more or less silent."


In his review of the film years after its release, Roger Ebert says, "Chaplin was technically not playing the Tramp." He also writes, "He [Chaplin] put the Little Tramp and $1.5 million of his own money on the line to ridicule Hitler."



Chaplin’s real history was not just the one he was facing up to, but also the one he was recounting by combining the characters of the Tramp and the Jewish barber in the image of the “pariah”.


One might be tempted to use the cliché that 'the speech is just as powerful now as it was then' and there are many similar comments online, but in reality, it is extremely difficult to understand how the movie must have leaped off the screen and captured the attention of millions of viewers in cinemas with its message of the commonality of humanity, and the urgent need to assist those in great need across the ocean in Europe where millions were being mercilessly slaughtered.



One might be tempted to use the cliché that 'the speech is just as powerful now as it was then' and there are many similar comments online, but in reality, it is extremely difficult to understand how the movie must have leaped off the screen and captured the attention of millions of viewers in cinemas with its message of the commonality of humanity, and the urgent need to assist those in great need across the ocean in Europe where millions were being mercilessly slaughtered.


The final speech from the film is Chaplin's Magnus Opus.


 


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