Criterion Collections has just released a luminous new DVD version of The Great Dictator (the Chaplin masterpiece originally released in 1940) with a huge number of related special features.

Even though I’d seen the scene of Charlie Chaplin in a Hitler outfit dancing with a globe countless times, I never knew its context before, so I missed its full poignancy. Chaplin plays two roles in this film: “Adenoid Hynkel, the Dictator of Tomainia,” and “a Jewish Barber” (who, like Chaplin’s beloved character “The Tramp,” gets no further identifiers). As Hynkel’s power grows, life becomes ever more difficult for the Barber and his friends in the ghetto, nevertheless, his love for “Hannah” (a laundress played by Paulette Goddard) blossoms.

The globe-dancing scene begins in minute 53, and the next 5 minutes (from ~ 53:30 to ~ 58:17) may well be the most sublime footage ever recorded. But you must watch both “chapters” (Chapter 10: “Emperor of the World” and Chapter 11: “Barber of the Ghetto”) to realize the great depth and breadth of Chaplin’s incomparable genius.

The wonderful parts of this film are so wonderful that I wish I could tell you the whole film is perfect . . . but I can’t. After the barber is sent to a concentration camp modeled on Dachau (~ 83), Chaplin devotes over 20 minutes to Hynkel’s attempts to sideline “Benzino Napaloni, the dictator of Bacteria” as they both race to invade “Osterlich.”

Although Jack Oakie’s Mussolini impersonation is almost as good as Chaplin’s Hitler riff, these comic antics go on way too long. But if you decide to slip away to the rest room, be sure to return with plenty of tissues, because the final moments (beginning ~ 110), will break your heart.

Watching it again yesterday as I prepared to write this review, I found myself sobbing at the end. Hannah, beaten and bereft in Osterlich, hears words of hope from the barber and revives. Watching this scene now, over 70 years after it was filmed, two things are clear. First, the barber is right: democracy will triumph and Hynkel’s time as a “Great Dictator” will, in fact, be very short. But even as American audiences were laughing in their theatre seats, Jews in Belarus and Ukraine were already being slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands, and millions more would perish before the real Hitler was finally defeated. How did Chaplin know all of this, in 1940, when almost everyone else on the planet wanted only to avert their collective gaze?

Charlie Chaplin: may his memory be for blessing.

Copyright: The Al Hirschfeld Foundation.

Read my complete post on the new JUF Blog.  In addition to my regular culture columns (in print & online), I will post something in Tzivi’s Cinema Spotlight once every month.

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    • Betty in Chicago
    • August 16, 2011

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts in this wonderful review, Jan.

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