Der Fooey’s Face


The Jewish barber — now identified as such — is hospitalized for mental trauma. The second time in as many films Chaplin has consigned himself to the psych ward. It’s not exactly clear why this theme, a natural one for Chaplin given his mother’s mental illness and his father’s alcoholism, suddenly starts emerging now. Maybe something to do with the death of his mother in 1928. The subject of mental illness becomes available to him.

It’s a somewhat strange turn of events — the barber hasn’t shown any signs of cracking up in the WWI sequence, although admittedly absolutely everything that happens to him is extremely stressful. But unlike in MODERN TIMES there’s no foreshadowing. It feels very much like a plot device, which it is.

A straightforward newspaper montage takes us across the interwar period, and we get to see a lot of Tomanian newspapers, and it’s now asserted that the spelling is “Tomainia” not “Tomania” as the opening credits had it.

Sidenote — Chaplin, since he was inventing a fictitious set of European nations (Tomania but also Bacteria and Osterlich), could have invented a fictitious persecuted minority. It is of course SO much better not to. By saying “Jewish” frequently and proudly, and showing recognizable but not overly stereotyped Jewish characters, Chaplin showed more courage than any other filmmaker in Hollywood. Of course, the reason given for nobody else being so bold is that the studio bosses were themselves mostly Jewish, and didn’t want to draw personal attention to the fact. Goebbels drew personal satisfaction from this squeamishness.

Since a good crackpot theory is always worth running with for a short distance, as long as you don’t take it too seriously, here’s mine:

The Jewish barber is invalided out of the war, like Hitler. And then Adenoid Hynkel, who is also suspiciously like Hitler, appears and rises to prominence. It can be argued that the Great War has split Chaplin’s character in two. The Jewish barber loses his memory of recent events. Hynkel BECOMES recent events. A lid has been ripped from the id. Chaplin’s dark side is unleashed.

The World War One sequence is a strange thing, storywise. Its only useful purpose, other than getting laughs and making for a visual opening sequence, and introducing the minor character Schultz, is to set up the Jewish barber’s nervous collapse, and this it refuses to do. The film COULD have enjoyed the symmetry of beginning with Hynkel’s speech and ending with the barber’s. It COULD have introduced Hynkel during the Great War scenes, perhaps playing with mistaken identity to prefigure the climax.

Of course, Chaplin’s narrative looseness is partly a product of his need to go where the comedy is. Charlie/Jewish barber suffering in WWI is funny, whereas Hynkel suffering would be weird and uncomfortable. Having portrayed a fantasy of repetitive mental strain injury in MODERN TIMES, Chaplin couldn’t find a tasteful way to do PTSD/combat shock/shell shock here, so he elides it.

Anyway, the trauma of the war’s end creates a schizoid Charlie, his innocent side becoming EXAGGERATEDLY innocent — wiped clean — and his bullying, egomaniacal side — that aspect of the Tramp character and also definitely that aspect of Chaplin’s character — becoming EXAGGERATEDLY malign. It’s often said that Chaplin has more fun playing Hynkel than the Jewish barber, which is certainly true, I think, but it’s also a result of where the comedy is. Hitler is a very rich subject for a comedian, a subject Chaplin was uniquely well-placed to exploit. The Tramp, to whom the Jewish barber is a very very close relation (at least), has proven himself also extremely rich… It’s not that he’s been mined dry, it’s more that the ghetto isn’t such a great environment for humour. The film has to be quite careful with this stuff, and cautiousness isn’t conducive to slapstick. We’ll look later at how Chaplin wrestles with this problem.

But now — on to Hynkel’s big speech!

3 Responses to “Der Fooey’s Face”

  1. Brilliant analysis. THE GREAT DICTATOR has been the point at which I start liking Chaplin’s movies. Your post just elucidated for me why that is.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: