The Great Dictator

Chaplin did not disappoint. The Great Dictator is profound.

It would be an ordinary, though terrifically executed, political satire without the mysterious last scene, where Hynkel (i.e. Hitler)’s benign double, the Barber, gives a benign humanitarian speech? And this seen really is enigmatic. Though it seems to be a triumph of speech from its dimensions of evil—that although Hynkel used it to do harm, speech is now being used for the force of good—I see it as something much more ambiguous. One need to only observe the Barber’s expression after he stops talking. There is no triumph, no happiness, but pure terror. A lostness. A complete inability to comprehend the situation. What is he terrified about?

The applause. The blind applause for his speech irrespective of the content of his words (this happens only in the absurd interpretations of Hynkel’s pseudo-German at the beginning of the film). What he is saying doesn’t matter, it seems. He can be replaced by any person. Hynkel. Barber. Or whatever. The other only hears what they want to hear. You are only a puppet for whom they are able to unravel their darkest desires. Once your words leave you, your intentions do not matter. They become autonomous, acting against your will. (Hence the translator of Hynkel’s pseudo-German reads a “prewritten script.”)

All words can be manipulated to fit evil. Our words are in some sense external to ourselves. We cannot control it. It spurs a causal chain of its own as it reverberates in the intersubjective field. It is much too difficult to speak for the force of good. The music for the ending speech is the same music when Hynkel was fantasizing about dictating a whole world. It is a nation-wide fantasy, and the word has no force then. All words are drowned by the abyss of fanaticism—as Solzenitsyn laments after arriving at America: he can say what he thinks, but it doesn’t matter anymore. No one listens.

There are some tragedies that are so horrifying that one can stage it with a comic content, and hide the horror in the formal movement that diverts from what is presented on the screen. The Great Dictator did that. The ending is horrible. It seems to be the traditional hollywood everything is fine ending, but just imagine what is to happen to the Jews, and to the Barber, after this singular moment of triumph. Life still goes on, undisturbed. People are still being slaughtered.

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