As the ugliness of the Trump administration’s nationalism and hate has roared into office in the last six weeks, it’s drawn more than one comparison to the world’s worst dictatorships and their respective roads to power. And since then, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film, The Great Dictator. Given our country’s increasing nationalism and fear of the Other, Chaplin’s masterpiece is worth a rewatch. Or a first watch, if decades-old satire from silent film stars hasn’t exactly been your thing.
Chaplin wrote, directed, and starred in The Great Dictator, and it was actually his first talkie. In it, he plays both a sweet Jewish barber and the terrifying dictator of the fictional Tomania, Adenoid Hynkel. The story follows Hynkel growing increasingly power-hungry as he runs into obstacles in his quest to invade the neighboring Osterlich. During this the unnamed barber returns to the Jewish ghetto after years in a military hospital suffering from amnesia after the First World War, having no idea of the tyranny he’s missed.
The subject matter could easily feel heavy-handed in less capable hands, but Chaplin’s wouldn’t go that route. The Great Dictator never gives up the bits in favor of preachiness. Instead, it mocks Hitler through a gibberish German speech, harkening back to Chaplin’s silent roots (and likely to be a hit with any beginning improv student playing gibberish exercises) and some great language play; a lieutenant high within Hynkel’s command is named “Garbage,” and Tomania is known as the “nation of the double cross” because their symbol is two Xs. But when the jokes are dropped for the barber’s earnest speech, it’s heartfelt and well earned.
But the movie’s showcase piece and the enduring image that make The Great Dictator so viscerally prescient is the gorgeous dance Chaplin’s Hynkel does with an oversized balloon globe that he ultimately destroys by accident. It’s two minutes sans dialogue that manage to be funny even today, while showing the ego-centrism behind Hynkel’s desire for power and a carelessness with it that calls to mind a certain tweeter-in-chief. Our present-day satirists would be smart to do an homage to this scene with a Trump impersonator, but that’d probably rely too much on someone actually catching the reference.
Erica Lies is a writer and comedian in Austin, Texas. Her nonfiction work has appeared in Paste, The Hairpin, Bitch Magazine, Rookie Mag, and Screener.