We’re finally there!

The visuals can be disposed of quickly. Chaplin, the Jewish barber, stands cap in hand before the microphones. But once the speech starts, Chaplin the director cuts to a tight head-and shoulders, and mainly stays on it.

A cutaway to Hannah allows him to break the shot and we return to a wider one, but a dramatic push-in as he ramps up his fervour once more takes us close. Crowd shot, dissolve to Hannah, then a series of closeups of the two, separated by distance but united by some psychic connection, perhaps — yes, love.

As Costa-Gavras points out, the simplicity is deceptive. They key thing Chaplin does with his framing, apart from creating intimacy with his audience (that of a talking actor, not a silent comic) is to exclude all the apparatus of Tomainian Nazism. The double cross armband is framed out. To Cost-Gavras, far from being uncinematic (a big talking scene) this is the essence of cinema. As Scorsese puts it, cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s not.

Chaplin was at continual war with his assistants about the speech. These conflicts were often productive — Chaplin only gave in when he was genuinely convinced, and have you ever noticed how impossible it is to convince anyone of anything? And yet, he did occasionally make chances. The crew was his first audience, after all.

Chaplin’s argument was that the speech was what the Jewish barber WOULD say, if he were given such a chance. Which is odd, because Chaplin doesn’t even bother to use the barber’s voice, that rather high-pitched, quick style of delivery. And there’s been no indication that the barber is a political thinker: he did, after all, describe Hynkel as “Most amusing,” when the raids on the ghetto were paused.

This is Chaplin speaking, as impressively as he can. Having played two roles throughout the film, then effectively merging them as the barber is mistaken for the dictator, he now drops both masks and makes the speech HE would make if given the chance. You can see him making speeches to raise money for war bonds in WWI and he’s similarly impassioned. And presumably didn’t believe a word he was saying.

Chaplin/the barber begins by suicidally dropping his Hynkel guise, or almost. He doesn’t want to be an emperor. He’d like to help everyone if possible. “We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that.” Says the man standing before the lightly fictionalized Nazi army. The thing is, he’s not wrong, which is why his words are touching. But whatever you can say about humanity, the opposite also seems to be true. It’s why the Chaplin-Hitler dichotomy is so effective here.

“Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want.” Chaplin returns to the themes of MODERN TIMES — he sees that the form of modern society that turns people into cogs in a machine is slavery, inhuman. He may not have recognized the similarity between communism and capitalism — whether you’re being oppressed by the state or by business may not make much difference — but he’s instinctively an anarchist anyway.

“We think too much and feel too little.” I never liked this line, in this context. One thing you can’t say about Nazism, it seems to me, is that it’s overly intellectual and lacks emotion. Rather, the appeal is to the gut. What Chaplin means by “feel, ” I think, is “show empathy,” at which point the line starts to work. And the kind of empathy that’s needed is true, universal empathy. No doubt the Nazis considered themselves empathetic, loved their children. But they closed off fellow-feeling, limited who could be considered their fellow.

“Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world -” a useful reminder which cues the first shot of Hannah.

“To those who can hear me, I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress.” All this harping on greed. Hynkel is greedy, I suppose — he lusts for the world. But a lot of this speech is anti-capitalist more than anti-Nazi. And J. Edgar Hoover is in the audience, furiously taking notes. Chaplin will be allowed to make two more films on American soil.

“Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel!” Ah yes. Necessary to address the actual, physical audience. Chaplin actually filmed shots of Tomainian soldiers putting down their rifles and dancing together. Maybe his assistants’ objections were sufficiently strong on that occasion, or maybe Chaplin didn’t want to cut away from himself. I think it’s important we don’t see too much how the speech is received. Chaplin has done what he has so often done — he did it in THE KID and CITY LIGHTS particularly — he has taken the story to an impasse, where it can end on a note of high, positive emotion, but it is impossible to convincingly or dramatically imagine what comes next. The film is forced to stop.

“Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men!” Again with the machines. If we think back to the WWI stuff, Chaplin dwarfed himself with big guns and put himself in a plane — war was the work of machinery, just as industry was in MODERN TIMES. It makes the spot gags with Hynkel’s inventors more relevant than we might have thought: the dictator is a modern man, keen to enlist all the latest scientific developments in his brutal advance. “We’ve just discovered the most wonderful poison gas,” gushed Herring. “It will kill EVERYONE!”

“Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural!” I don’t know if CC read Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism, but it’s perfectly possible. “In brief, the goal of sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and who will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation.” The book was published in Germany in 1933, and immediately burned. Not sure about English translation, though.

“In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you!” OK, he mentioned the deity. And pushes in dramatically, a very rare thing for Chaplin, as he does so. “Pour religion on everything, like catsup,” is Lee Tracy’s advice in THE BEST MAN. It always truck me as weird, as my school attempted to indoctrinate me (no separation of church and state here) that the one true universal religion was followed only by a small minority of human beings. Saying that God is inside all humans is, sort of, nice and inclusive. Or maybe colonialist? Perhaps the Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, don’t WANT that foreign God inside them? But Chaplin’s use of the idea is as benign as it can be made to be — if there’s any truth in this stuff, it should unite rather than divide us.

“You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.” Yes, and what do we choose to do with this power instead?

“Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. “Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfil that promise. They never will!” This is part of the trouble. Chaplin is saying all the right things, but he recognizes that others have made these promises, without any intention of even trying to achieve them.

“Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance.” “How the world dearly loves a cage,” as Maude says in HAROLD AND MAUDE. Freedom of movement has always seemed crucial to me. Now it’s the big thing UK political leaders can win support by promising to abolish. When I was a kid I proposed to my socialist big brother that the nations of the earth should be free to run any forms of government they wanted, so long as their people were free to travel to pick the one they wanted to live under. He was appalled by my naivety. “That wouldn’t solve anything!” I still slightly suspect he was the one being naive, in believing that things get solved.

“Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!” Chaplin’s treatment of the speech’s reception is very clever. We need to see SOMETHING, I guess, so when he finishes his speech on a grand climax followed by an uncertain look, he fades up the sound of mass cheering — Chaplin looks VERY uncertain as to how he feels about this popular adulation, as well he should — and cuts to a stock shot panning across a vast, undifferentiated throng. Doesn’t look like a crowd in uniform. It’s just a sea of humanity. So that the Tomainian troops have been stripped of their military costumes and turned back into human beings. We can certainly agree that avoiding using recognizable TRIUMPH OF THE WILL footage was a good call. But using stock footage per se was also smart — it enhances the feeling of cardboard flimsiness, it separates the fictional world from our own, because this is a kind of dream ending.

Chaplin did consider dissolving from here to the barber waking up in his concentration camp, which would have been very strong. NOBODY wanted to see that. It would have been, in a way, more true and tasteful, but in 1940 Britain, having urged Chaplin not to make the year before, was now clamouring for a propaganda feature, and Chaplin gave it to them — in his own manner.

“Look up, Hannah!” The bit of the speech which is mysteriously chopped off so often.

“Listen,” says Hannah, looking up and listening after the speech has ended, and only Chaplin’s music is playing.

Nobody talks about that. Everybody says the film ends with a big long speech. “It needed to be said,” said Sidney Lumet, dismissing the carping that it was too on the nose. “Everything doesn’t have to be perfect.” Which is true, but the film doesn’t exactly end on a big speech. It ends on a woman listening, to silence, or to non-diegetic music somehow only she can hear, or to something else that we can’t hear. Not yet, anyway.


5 Responses to “Speech!”

  1. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I’ve been reading Roman history regularly off-and-on for the last few years, and the Romans had this concept called “auctoritas” from which the English word authority derives from (which has a more limited meaning). For the Romans, auctoritas was something generated from the person outwards, rather than granted directly by the state. It was their fame, their prestige, the respect they commanded among their peers and society at large…and it was that regard of themselves in the eyes of others, that gave them a platform. Etymologists have tried to use the word “auctoritas” in the Latin in the original sense for a while now. But for me, I think the speech at the end of The Great Dictator is the embodiment of that.

    It’s a scene that could be generated by nobody other than Chaplin in 1940, and accepted by nobody (at that time and later) from anyone other than him. Because Chaplin had that auctoritas. Chaplin was a global celebrity and beloved by the public, he met and knew heads of state and he was making a mainstream comedy for a huge audience. So he spoke knowing he would be listened to, and spoke knowing that people had decided he ought to be heard on this issue. So yeah, it’s very cinematic but it’s also something that cannot be authentically written down in screenplay form, nor performed by anyone else. Which is why I think the likes of Lumet and others feel uncomfortable about it.

    It’s also the issue of Chaplin being a talking actor…until The Great Dictator, when people heard him it was in activist mode or as a celebrity, where he interacted with other famous types, so he most likely didn’t have any other mode of performing speech yet, rhetorically speaking.

    Great point about the framing…yeah the cropping out of all the Tomanian symbols is something I noticed on my first watch but never recorded so great catch.

  2. Beautifully put.

    The other use of “authority” that works here is semi-synonymous with “presence” and “gravitas,” and the antonym of “the legendary minus factor.” Obviously Chaplin had used his presence before, but rarely relied on gravitas or authority. So this is a new mode, Chaplin as statesman, and it finds some kind of an outlet in all his subsequent work.

  3. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Although curiously not in Monsieur Verdoux…Verdoux is a fully realized character (a product I think of Welles’ screenplay). Obviously the ‘numbers sanctify’ speech at the end is in that mode but it’s also in character to Verdoux, and specific to his interaction with the priest. And it’s only the final walk to the gallows that you see the Tramp. In A King in New York, it’s the young child who gives a speech while Shahdov is more a fatigued observer.

  4. Very common in comedy is the unsustainable happy ending. Sometimes filmmakers very carefully finesse it, as Chaplin does in the other films you mention. Sometimes it becomes a joke, as when Stan and Ollie immediately erase a moment of triumph with a terrified retreat from angry prison warden, furious big game hunter, operetta soldiers, bees, Swiss gorilla, etc. (or at least a final physical indignity, usually imposed on Ollie). But most often there’s a sense you’re not supposed to think about it all.

    When Keaton becomes an officer at the end of “The General”, we don’t reflect that his conduct in battle, while brave, didn’t suggest any competence as a foot soldier, much less a leader. Or that his side is destined to lose anyway. All that matters is the girl recognizes him as a hero in that moment (his sole interest in the war, except when it interferes with his train, is to impress her).

    When “The Strong Man” closes with Harry Langdon as the law in a wild border town, or “Girl Shy” has Harold Lloyd’s book published because it’s laughably bad, there’s no reason to expect either of them to prosper for any length of time. At best we’re encouraged to laugh at the improbable moment of glory without dwelling on the likelihood it’s doomed.

    Moving down to standard studio product, it’s common to see clumsy weaklings win big games, blundering amateurs solve crimes, etc. It’s proposed that just wanting something enough equates objectively meriting it as well as being able to get it. It’s a happy ending when a beautiful heroine thinks Bob Hope is heroic and capable. We may laugh at her delusion, but we don’t dwell on what happens next. Show’s over.

    Chaplin couldn’t put a real ending on TGD because it’s impossible NOT to dwell on what happens next. The story was still playing out in the real world with no clear end in sight. ANY real ending, bleak or bright, stood the risk of being rendered unwatchable at any moment. So underneath everything that Chaplin carefully puts into this, it’s ultimately dropping the mask, admitting there’s no ending, but here’s a song to get you home.

  5. More beautiful observations!

    Sturges is the king of the undeserving hero, the boobytrapped happy ending. Woodrow becoming mayor in Hail the Conquering Hero is a good one, but the sloganeer and the inventor in Christmas in July and The Palm Beach Story seem to be foredoomed by the uselessness of their ideas (“…after all, a tennis racquet…”), which is part of the great joke for their quasi-benevolent creator.

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