Daily Archives: December 26, 2009

Saturday Night at the Movies: “The Great Dictator”


Completing our look at Frye’s “The Great Charlie” published in The Canadian Forum in August 1941 (previous posts here and here and here).

Frye says of Chaplin’s little tramp in Modern Times that the character takes us back to our “primitive belief” that “the lunatic is especially favoured by God,” a theme he carries on in his discussion of The Great Dictator (1940):

This, of course, is not fully intelligible without some reference to religion, and it is in this that The Great Dictator shows its chief advance on Modern Times. To the Nazi the Jew sums up everything he hates: he is of a different race, he is urban, he is intellectual, he is often undersized, he has a sense of humour and tolerance. For these reasons he is also the perfect Chaplin hero: besides, a contempt for this big-happy-family racialism is the first principle of American anarchism. Imagine Huckleberry Finn without Jim or Moby-Dick without Queequog, and you can soon see why Chaplin had to be a Jew. But the picture itself is not Jewish, but Christian to a startling degree. The parallel between the dictator who gains the world but loses his soul and the Jewish barber on one hand, and Caesar and a Jewish carpenter on the other, is very unobtrusive but it is there. Chaplin knows well enough what the Jew Freud and the Christian Pope Pius agree on, that anti-Semitism is a preparation for, and a disguised form of, anti-Christianity. But his conception of Christianity is one conditioned by his American anarchism. What attracts him about Christianity is that something in it that seems eternally unable to get along with the world, the uneasy recurrence, through centuries of compromise and corruption, of the feeling that the world and the devil are the same thing. Hence the complement to his Jewish barber is a dictator who is also an antichrist. The picture opens with a huge cannon pointing at Notre Dame. ‘Oh, Schultz, why have you forsaken me?” [c.f. Mark 15:34] Hinkel blubbers at one point, and when his counsellor whispers ‘god’ to him he screams and climbs a curtain. At probably the same moment Hannah says that if there is no God her life would be no different, which recalls Thoreau’s remark that atheism is probably the form of religion least boring to God. The horrible isolation of the will to power makes its victim not superhuman but subhuman: ‘a brunette ruling a blond world.’ When Hinkel explains that he is shaved in a room under the ballroom with a glass ceiling, it sounds like a very corny gag, but it is quite consistent with his scurrying up the curtains, mangling nuts and bananas, and dashing about in the futile restlessness of a monkey. Hinkel may not be the historical Hitler, but he is, perhaps, the great modern Satan Hugo and Gide and Baudelaire longed to see, though he would have disappointed them, as Satan always does. Opposite Hinkel is the inarticulate, anonymous, spluttering Jewish barber, who hardly speaks until a voice speaks through him, and with that voice the picture ends. How anyone can imagine that it could have any other end is beyond me. (Northrop Frye on Modern Culture, 101-2)

Unfortunately, YouTube has no complete version of the movie posted.  However, there are a number of clips of famous sequences, such as the one above (Adenoid Hinkel giving a speech in mock-German as an imperturbable translator offers a coolly inadequate translation), and those after the jump.

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