You’ll probably wonder why I’m reviewing a film that was released in 1940. Well, I discovered the film was on YouTube in its entirety and I finally got to watch it during some highly important procrastination time, so here goes. As a film it is phenomenal: a brilliant historical source and hilarious bit of comedy. The historian in me sees many interesting points, and the human being in me simply laughs at the comic brilliance of Charlie Chaplin.
Most of us who studied history beyond Key Stage 3 will probably have touched Nazi Germany in one shape or another from year 9 to sixth form and probably feel like we know everything from the exact hair-to-surface-area ratio of Hitler’s moustache to the nature of the Nazi economy to the enormous belt size of Hermann Goering. I understand that – the Nazis as a period of history are done to death in our schools. But the film still amazes me as to what people knew as early as 1940.
The film itself depicts the Anschluss in 1938 when Germany (or here Tomania) invaded Austria, simultaneously attacking the Jews at home. Yet the scale of what was known still surprises me. They portray the SA attacks on the Jews around Kristallnacht, how they painted the word ‘Jew’ on Jewish property, and made the Jews wear yellow stars. Most striking was the mention of the concentration camps. Yes in 1940 the Holocaust hadn’t yet started; but that people knew these existed, five years before the liberation of Auschwitz, is simply harrowing.
And this is the backdrop that Chaplin’s hero, the Jewish Barber, fits in. Having been hospitalised for twenty years after the Great War, he is unaware of Adenoid Hynckel’s (also, but ‘purely coincidentally’, played by Chaplin) rise and the strongly anti-Jewish policies he decrees. The Barber tries restart his barber’s business when Hynckel’s storm-troopers attack. In his naïveté, he does something truly revolutionary. He fights back, and eventually finds himself replacing Hynckel and leading the world to peace. Perhaps his innocence and naivete are most striking. Any man looking at Nazi Germany from the outside could see the abuse of the Jews was wrong. For Chaplin, America ought to see this too.
The film itself serves two purposes. First, it was a call to arms. America at that time was out of the war and was still reluctant to get involved with the problems of the Old World. Chaplin’s call at the end of the film for America to ‘fight for a new world, a decent world’, and reminds us that ‘so long as men die, liberty will never perish’, and that the Nazis are ‘unloved…machines.’ This was to get the USA to ‘free the world.’
Yet Chaplin brilliantly captures the ridiculousness of the evil-doers. First, he employs a tool that very few since have done. He has simply destroyed the character and decency of America’s enemies. Take the names of the antagonists – Adenoid Hynckel, Herr Herring, Herr Garbitsch and Benzino Napoloni (no prizes for who these really are). The sheer abuse of the way they spoke, the way they dressed and their character traits, the hilarity of the names ‘Adenoid’, ‘Garbitsch’, speak for themselves. And then he brilliantly captures the attempt at one-upmanship and distrust between those who were meant to be ideological partners and allies. He also ridicules the way Hitler also speaks German is probably best compared with the impersonations Team America did with the Arab World and North Korea. Perhaps it is a bit blatant and uncouth, but for propaganda and historical value alone, it’s priceless.
Politics aside, Chaplin’s acting makes this a masterpiece. The brilliance of his slapstick as a hapless man is simply a sight to behold. For instance, accidentally dropping a grenade down his sleeve or throwing a bucket of paint in a storm-trooper. But Chaplin is not alone, Paulette Goddard compliments Chaplin in such a way that the comedy is enhanced without losing sight of the real message. The pure slapstick is something that people of our age would only have seen done in Tom and Jerry or Mr Bean, but it’s refreshing when you see the real thing in action.