It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Hitler

Something Chaplin never explains — Adenoid Hynkel does his speeches in Tomainian — a made-up Germanic tongue consisting of gibberish and little recognizable nonsenses like “wienerschnitzel mitt de lagerbeeren” — but reverts to English for casual conversations. Very occasionally he will revert to Tomainian in times of high emotion.

Also, he has a radio commentator, Herman Schtick, voiced by his OTHER brother-in-law, Wheeler Dryden, translating his speech. To whom? The English-speaking world, I guess. Which would explain the squeamish “His excellency has just referred to the Jewish people.”

Chaplin, in welcoming Dryden into his cinematic family, shows fine judgement. I’ve seen the guy on screen, in a short shown at Bologna, and he’s an intolerable ham. The kind of silent movie acting you thought was a myth. By keeping him off-camera, Chaplin gets the best out of him. He’s excellent as a prissy translator, although he’s probably copying Chaplin’s line readings.

Chaplin complained, sort of, that this film needed a lot of prep because of all the models and special effects. We’ve seen the toy plane with its miniature Chaplin and Reginald Gardiner, now we have the flat cityscape background and the infinite crowd, which is pretty impressive, even if only the front rows show any lifelike motion. Further back we have what may be cut-outs, photographic standees, perfectly matching the real people. And then smaller, brighter audience members who are probably a painting. The whole thing combined on a rear-projection screen for Chaplin to perform in front of.

There are three levels of joke going on. Possibly more. Dryden’s dry commentary is in comic contrast to Chaplin’s furious histrionics. Chaplin’s Hitlerian antics are an accurate parody of how AH appears to the non-German-speaker. And then there are the dumb jokes, like pouring a glass of water down the front of his jodhpurs.

The accurate aspect is strikingly so — Hitler was a raving maniac. It’s quite hard to see what his appeal was, but this is not merely linguistic or historic — it depends on whether fascistic stuff has any attratction to you. I read recently — where? — an account of Hitler’s rl schtick, portraying himself simultaneously as the strong hero who would raise Germany to supreme status, and as the poor victim of the world’s injustice. Some kind of “empathy boomerang” (B. Kite’s phrase) in operation — Hitler standing in for the audience, appropriating their grievances and reflecting them back and at the same time offering to revenge them. Quite reminiscent of a recent president’s stage persona, in fact.

The dumb jokes may be dumb but they serve a serious purpose — rupturing the Hitlerian effect to point up how ridiculous he is. If, as Mel Brooks claims, ridicule is more powerful than invective, would a film like this, made in Germany, have sunk the Nazis in 1932? I doubt it — there is no shortage of satire today and its targets flourish. The left dominates the world of satire and the right dominates the world. Woody Allen may be correct to argue in MANHATTAN that, in the case of Nazis, biting satire may be less effective than bricks and baseball bats.

The Tashlinesque cartoon gag of the microphone bending back from Hynkel’s fury may be a stretch — like the rotating artillery shell it doesn’t belong to the same kind of comic logic as the rest of the film. Though it anticipates the role animation would play in America’s propaganda war against Hitler.

Two supporting characters are introduced: Herring and Garbitsch. The names are Strangelovian/Carry On film silliness. The performances are opposites. The great Billy Gilbert, bringing a new flavour of the vaudevillian to Chaplin’s cinema, plays Herring as a fat buffoon. Which was an aspect of the real Herman Goering. We can thank Goering’s incompetence for allowing us to win the Battle of Britain. But he wasn’t a TOTAL idiot. The ample frontage decorated with medals on every available space is accurate — Hitler knew Goering loved his trinkets. But he would never have humiliated him as Hynkel does to Herring.

Garbitsch, played by Henry Daniell, is deadly serious. As a Goebbels parody, the performance is downright restrained. Chaplin totally gets the cult-like aspect of the Nazi Party. Typically in a cult the leader is somewhat crazy, believing his own bullshit, but his immediate underlings are just gangsters. They’re able to manipulate the leader so that profitable choices are made. Garbitsch, though, is like Goebbels in that he’s 100% a true believer. He may sometimes be surprised by his Fooey’s behaviour but he never allows himself to question his sanity.

OK, I’m wrong about the crowd — when they zieg heil, or the Tomainian equivalent, a large number of them raise their arms, including all the ones I thought were cut-outs. The ones in the far distance just sort of shimmer. Apparently — I recall reading this but don’t recall where — distant crowds were produced by laying popcorn or some such granular substance on a vibrating platform to make a shimmering effect.

Chaplin, we’re told by one of his assistants, genuinely admired Hitler’s performance style. And obviously it was a gift of a part to him.

The pratfall isn’t exactly the end of the scene, but it’s the end of the YouTube clip and the end of Hynkel’s public performance. A suitably deflating gag. Why have Chaplin play Hitler if you don’t have him fall down.

Famously, Hitler, a movie buff (Henry Hathaway’s LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER was his favourite) got hold of a print of THE GREAT DICTATOR and ran it. Twice. His reaction, however, was not recorded. “I’d give anything to know what he thought of it,” said Chaplin.

Less famously, Churchill, also a movie enthusiast (“Hess or no Hess, I’m going to see the Marx Brothers,”), ran the film also. From Erik Larson’s history The Splendid and the Vile: Late the next night, exhausted, Churchill mistimed his landing on a chair and fell between it and an ottoman, wedging himself with his rear on the floor and his feet in the air. Colville [a secretary and secret diarist] witnessed the moment. “Having no false dignity,” Colville wrote, “he treated it as a complete joke and repeated several times, ‘A real Charlie Chaplin!'”

7 Responses to “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Hitler”

  1. This is my favorite sequence in the movie — everything seems to come together (the use of sound, the silent movie gags, the many levels of satire happening at once). Only isolated parts of the movie are on fire with brilliance like this, but for me the uneven quality of the film overall works in its favor, because you feel Chaplin’s despair and pain, his sense that using every weapon in his arsenal still isn’t adequate for defeating fascism, until the end where he basically says “fuck it,” drops the mic, and addresses the audience directly. I’m a huge movie buff, but the only movie poster hanging in my house is one for this movie.

  2. Beautifully put.

    Chaplin’s first draft appears to have been even more scattershot — I’ll attempt to describe some deleted scenes later — and was 180 pages long. He was definitely firing everything he had at the enemy.

  3. My own “empathy boomerang” theory of Hitler’s stage appeal is that while Mussolini projected unremitting belligerent strength, Hitler projected weakness as a rhetorical strategy. He had a characteristic gesture of rounding off a rant by stepping back and shrinking into himself, wrapped in his own arms, exhausted. He’s sacrificing his being for the Volk, and only the Volk’s cheers and heils can keep him going.

  4. That sounds right. In which case Tr*mp is stealing from both playbooks, the Mussolini jaw-jut and the Hitlerian “poor me.”

  5. Fiona Watson Says:

    Katya, your description of Hitler is dead on. It also makes him sound like James Brown, staggering off stage and then returning with renewed vigour. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SV4CnauVtKs

  6. The Godfather of Soulless

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