“Democratia schtunk!! liberty schttunk !! free spracken schtunk!!,” thunders Adenoid Hynkel in front of the sons and daughters of the Double Cross. But even as the Hynkel bares open his dark soul and devious intentions, “strunken me de Europe, and strunken me de world,”; the personal translator on the radio station, Heinrich Stick goes about frostily reading from a prepared script and states that “in conclusion the Fuhrer remarks that for the rest of the world, he has nothing but peace in his heart.”
Burlesque is the one word that comes to mind as one is riveted watching the Great Dictator, a brilliant parody by one of the greatest comedians (and actor as well) this world has ever seen: Charles Chaplin. In fact, the opening speech by Herr Hynkel is one of my all time favourite scenes; the way Hynkel raves and rants about his greatest army and navy, the guttural noises he makes while talking about Jews and the times he breaks off remembering the struggles he had with Herring and Garbitsch (pronounced as Garbage) or the beauty of the Aryan maiden. The 5-minute long address is delivered in gibberish English, with smattering of German words.
It is not merely Hynkel’s speech, in fact each and every scene in the movie is a masterpiece by itself and that is what makes the movie such a classic and Chaplin such a genius. I well remember about an incident the Satyajit Ray recalled about making Pather Panchali. Filming one of the sequences, he got so carried away by the visual that he continued shooting. It was only later on that he realised that while the sequence was very much visually appealing, it did not really fit into the scheme of things and had to be discarded. The movie is more important than the sequences, was the implied message.
And yet, if one were to see Chaplin’s films they are all made of amazing sequences that are meant to tickle us. Chaplin’s antics stay with us, even if the movie does not. Many years back, when I was much younger and in school (apparently 2nd or 3rd standard), we were all taken to Chaplin movie being screened in one of the theatres. That was my first introduction to the tramp. I don’t really recall which that movie, but there are a couple of scenes that I still remember, apparently Chaplin and the villain are caught in a blizzard and in one sequence he cooks his shoe and sits down to eat it with a fork and knife. In fact he almost relishes the shoe, as if it is come delicacy. And in another scheme, the house they seem to be living in, slides down a mountain slope ostensibly because of Chaplin’s carelessness. This is all I remember from my first Chaplin movie. Nonetheless, it is a miracle that I remember anything from that movie considering the lapse of time (over 2 decades and more). That is the power of gag, that is where Chaplin’s genius: in creating gags that tickle.
Later on in life, when I saw more of Chaplin, my love for the man in oversized baggy trousers and 14-size shoes, wearing a trench coat and a bowler hat only increased. The reason why Chaplin has managed to stay relevant even almost after a century of work is simply because he touches us with all those gags. Chaplin’s tramp is the quintessential underdog that we all sympathise and relate with, who in the pursuit of his love interest is not always successful but never sad. He is a hopeful, jolly, careless free spirit; a kind we all aspire to be but just can’t. And as this world becomes more immensely complicated, the simplicity of Chaplin’s film will always warm our hearts, make us sigh for the days of yore. The time when all was simple and hence beautiful.
Coming back to Great Dictator movie, this is more special than all the rest of Chaplin’s movies because it went beyond capturing the struggle of man in pursuit of his love or merely survival. For the first time, Chaplin decided to speak his mind through his film, he wanted to convey a message, let us all known that in truth, and it was fascism that really “schtunk”. Great Dictator was released in 1940, when Hitler was at the very peak after gobbling up nearly all of Western Europe. The Swastika was flying all across the continent of Europe, bringing misery and pain to many. Even the western nations were not sure how to deal with Hitler, for they were playing him up against Russia, before he started to bite the very hands that helped him. The dubiousity of the countries can be judged by the fact that when Chaplin announced the movie, UK government declared that they would ban it in 1938 because of their sympathetic alignment with the Third Reich, by the time the film was released in 1940, Britain was truly in opposition to Hitler’s hordes and decided to screen the film with pomp and pageantry. The western world was laughing at Germania, after calling it Tomania.
Hence, in many ways Chaplin was the first westerner to take on the might of the Axis powers by deciding to parody Adolf Hitler and this ally Benito Mussolini as Adenoid Hynkel and Benzino Napolini the dictator of Bactria and showing the world what really was happening behind the curtain. Nonetheless, many deplored the caricaturizing of Hitler; on seeing the film he does not seem as devious and distorted as he supposedly was. In fact, after his speech, he asks Garbitsch “how was the speech”, who advises him to step up the tempo on the Jews bit as it would distract the people. Now, isn’t that what all the politicians do across the globe, play up one against the another, demonising one set of people, essentially divide and rule. In this respect, Hynkel seems more humane (almost cute to be fair) than Hitler. Chaplin himself stated that had he known the true scale of devastation, he would not have made the film. That would have been a very great loss, because it is through satire and comedy that we really understand. So for me, Hynkel the buffoon was symbolic of Hitler, while Napolean in Animal Farm was Stalin.
Yet, for all its political staturing, the Great Dictator is a brilliant farce, typical of Chaplin. So, you have great gags; Hynkel doing a ballet with an inflated globe throwing it up repeatedly in air and it is juxtaposed with the double cross etchings in the back and when the balloon bursts you have Hynkel sobbing like a child. Then there is the scene where the Jewish barber and his friends get together to find who will go for a suicide mission by eating a pudding that has a coin in it. Or how he shaves a customer to the tune of Braun’s Hungarian dance number 5. Or when the obnoxious Bactrian dictator Napoloni comes to visit Tomania, and both he and Hynkel get into various situations trying to outdo each other. I also love the interaction of Hynkel with Herring, the times when he decides to pin a medal on his rather medalled shirt and when he gets angry like the time Napoloni mobilised his army for Osterilich, he goes into a mad rage jabbering in apparent German while de-pinning Herring. Who can forget, “de Banana”, can you?
And lest you thought the film was all sauerkraut and cheesy ravioli, Chaplin stuns us all by a moving message at the very end. In the climax, the Jewish Barber is mistaken for Hynkel and proudly presented by Garbitsch after the capture of Osterlich to declare the end of liberty and freedom. A rather shaken and distort barber decides to speak his mind and for the next five minutes talks about how the world could be a much better place if humans just acted like one, “We think too much and feel too little,” with pathos in his eyes. For once, the greatest comedian this world has ever produced makes you want to cry, your heart screams out in pain and you really feel a gloomy ‘Why’ in your head. And just when you feel all is worthless and of no consequence, the barber gives us hope by asking us to look up at the dawn of the new age, when we will rise over our pettiness, greed and viciousness, when evil inside us will be exhaled and we will indeed be humans not because we are born so, but because we act like one.
One still waits the day, when we will rise to the rainbow as the barber promised Hannah. Till, then we will have to make do with the Hynkels and the Napolonis of the world and believe me they are much better seen from Chaplin’s perspective than anyone else’s. Hope someday it really does.
**Let me list down the barber’s address and you will know:
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another.
In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge as made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.
The airplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me, I say, do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.
Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you, enslave you; who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines, you are not cattle, you are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural.
Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty! In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke, it is written that the kingdom of God is within man, not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power. Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will!
Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfill that promise. Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite!
Hannah, can you hear me? Wherever you are, look up Hannah! The clouds are lifting! The sun is breaking through! We are coming out of the darkness into the light! We are coming into a new world; a kindlier world, where men will rise above their hate, their greed, and brutality. Look up, Hannah! The soul of man has been given wings and at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow! Into the light of hope, into the future! The glorious future, that belongs to you, to me and to all of us. Look up, Hannah. Look up!”