Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Great Dictator (1940)


     Maybe you’ve heard of an actor/filmmaker named Charlie Chaplin. One of the great pioneers of cinema, Chaplin was a silent film star and directed such classics as “The Gold Rush”, “City Lights”, and “Modern Times”. But one of my favorites of Chaplin’s films is his first film with audible dialogue—a 1940 comedy set on the eve of World War II called “The Great Dictator”.

     In the movie, Chaplin has two main roles. His funnier role is Adenoid Hynkel, the mustache-sporting dictator of Tomania. And yes, this is a complete parody of Adolf Hitler in Germany… and it is hilarious. The scenes where Hynkel is giving speeches are obviously supposed to be in German, but when Chaplin heard Hitler in the newsreels, he sounded like he was speaking gibberish. So when Hynkel speaks, it’s gibberish that sounds like German.

     Anyway, Hynkel is indeed persecuting the Jews in the ghettos of Tomania, among them an unnamed Jewish barber, Chaplin’s other main role. The barber is injured in World War One when he saves a commander’s life, flies him away in a plane that runs out of gas, and lands somewhere in Tomania (we see this at the beginning of the film). So he is sent to a (mental?) hospital for years, in which time Hynkel takes power. When the barber returns, the ghetto is guarded by Stormtroopers, who steal from local merchants, vandalize property, and ultimately abuse the Jews who live there. However, their commander happens to be Commander Schultz (Reginald Gardiner)—the man whose life the barber saved in the war.

     When Schultz finds out that the barber lives in the ghetto, he commands his troops to resist abusing the Jews. So the barber, Hannah (Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s wife) the girl next door, and the other Jews in the ghetto can live in peace. But when political matters go bad for Hynkel, he ends up firing Schultz, sending him to a concentration camp, and bringing terror back to the Jewish ghettos. However, Schultz escapes, and in a series of events too complicated to put in this blog (yeah, just watch the movie), Schultz dresses the barber up as Hynkel (hey, when you got one actor playing two characters, those characters are going to look alike) and takes him to where Hynkel is supposed to deliver a speech that declares the invasion of a free Jewish country and ultimately sending Jews in all of Europe into concentration camps. But the barber, “Hynkel”, goes up to the podium and tells his troops, and the world:

BARBER: 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.

     And “Hynkel” proclaims a message to the world to unite, to put away hatred towards religions and races, and to use the technology we have to help one another. And the troops, free of their hatred, celebrate, Jews everywhere feel free, and Hannah and her family have hope for the first time in a long time. It really is one of the most uplifting endings I’ve ever seen on film.

     However, Chaplin got one little thing wrong. Well, two things. One: in his last monologue—even though I really should be praising this, I’m not—the barber cites Luke 17:21: “…the Kingdom of God is in your midst”, or “is within you”. I think Chaplin forgot his character was a Jew, because I don’t think most Jews would cite the Gospels. But what do I know. Two: the barber’s monologue seems to convey the idea that all men are essentially good. Well, I’m sorry to say, that’s not entirely true. See, Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Because Adam and Eve fell to temptation in Genesis 3, we are all born with sinful hearts. Essentially, the idea that man is essentially good is not theological. If Adam and Eve hadn’t sinned, that would be true, but unfortunately, we are all sinful people in a sinful world, and we are all sinful at heart.

     However, Romans 3:24 goes on to say, “All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Praise God! Because Jesus died on the cross for our sins, God gives us an opportunity to accept His word and be perfect one day in Heaven with him! To become a Christian, all you have to do is confess your sins to Jesus, ask for forgiveness, and make a lifelong commitment to follow Him. And my prayer for you, the reader, is that if you haven’t done that yet, you will. 

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