Chaplin’s The Great Dictator at IFC Center


Even for the Keatonians, preferring Buster’s grace under pressure over Chaplin’s faux-innocence, The Great Dictator (1940), showing in a new print, stands as a radical nonpareil, a film that had to be made. City Lights may have been Chaplin’s anti-talkie holdout, and Modern Times a sub-futurist footnote to René Clair, but Dictator was something new. A case of conceptual postmodern brio, the film arose from the bipolar synchronicity between two little men with toothbrush mustaches born four days apart and then simultaneously world-famous for years running. (“He’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around,” Chaplin was quoted as saying.) The result is an unrepeatable explosion of doublings—the most renowned entertainer in the world laying his own persona down on the railroad tracks of fascist mania. It was the first film to josh about genocide, even as it was still in the planning stage. If we’re a trifle inured to Nazi jokes by now, Chaplin’s high-spirited mockery shouldn’t be taken for granted: Production began in 1937, before even the annexation of Austria, and when it was finally released—ripping Hitler every which way and derisively airing the matters of concentration camps, mass slaughter, and “MARVelous poison gas!”—the U.S. was still neutral. As an individual political act, it marched alone in Golden Age Hollywood. (Think about how spineless Oliver Stone’s W. looks by comparison.) Like all major Chaplin works, Dictator was a cheaply, but methodically, made film, a cardboard act of humanist defiance, and, thanks to its purity of purpose, the cheesier the jokes get (famously, the German language itself receives a phlegmatic hosing), the harder they land. Reportedly, Hitler banned it, then watched it alone—twice.