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The Great Dictator (Blu-ray Review)

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The Great Dictator Blu-ray review

In 1939, Charlie Chaplin was at a professional crossroads. His most recent outing as his beloved bumbling vagrant the Tramp, Modern Times (1936), had been one of the top grossing films that year, but as a mostly silent picture that only used synchronised sound sparingly it was dramatically out of step with the influx of sound pictures. Worse, he'd received criticism for his incorporation of social commentary into what was otherwise a comedy—a rather pressing concern given that his new project was set to tackle the rise of fascism during World War II. The Tramp was out, talkies were in. Enter: Hynkel the dictator.

Supposedly conceived as a direct response to Nazi director Leni Riefenstahl's infamous propaganda piece Triumph of the Will (1935),  (1940) follows two identical characters, both played by Chaplin, who exist on polar opposite sides of the war effort in Tomainia—a stand-in for Germany that's the first of many thinly-veiled substitutes. On the one hand there's Adenoid Hynkel (read: Hitler), a despotic tyrant readying his country to invade Osterlich (Poland), and on the other is a nameless Jewish barber trying to escape persecution in the ghettos. While the former promotes division and hatred toward the Jewish people, the latter finds solidarity amongst his people as stormtroopers stalk past their humble homes.

If that sounds like an ill-fitting premise for a comedy, it is. While Chaplin had always blended slapstick with moments of authentic emotion, The Great Dictator marked his first foray into more serious fare, even as many of the hallmarks of his silent comedy were still present. At a time when the war was still far from won and the United States were still formally at peace with Nazi Germany, Chaplin intended to use his international platform to denounce Hitler. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, he debated stopping production, questioning if the situation was too monstrous to satirise. United States' President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged him to complete his work, an entreaty that clarifies The Great Dictator was a piece of propaganda itself, designed to change the minds and hearts of those uncertain about the prospect of war. A lofty goal for Chaplin's first true sound motion picture.

The Great Dictator speech

Initially released in the U.S. in 2011, this Collection edition consists of a 1080p/24hz high-def transfer digital restoration of the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Of the many supplementary features assembled, two stand out most: the first, a 55-minute documentary title The Tramp and the Dictator (2001) that dives deeper into the parallel lives led by Chaplin and Hitler, having only been born four days apart, and the second, a collection of colour production footage shot by Chaplin's half-brother Sydney, presented silently. The cover, featuring artwork by long-time alt film poster wunderkind Ollie Moss, similarly toys with the shadow Hitler cast over Chaplin's legacy by co-opting his iconic moustache—a recognition of the inverse trajectories taken by the two men.

It's fitting then that The Great Dictator is at its best when deconstructing Hynkel's manic egomania; using an underling's readily-proffered tongue to seal a letter or engaging in petty one-upmanship with fellow dictator Benzino Napoloni (Jack Oakie doing a dodgy Mussolini impression). As the Jewish barber, Chaplin defaults to his well-loved Tramp schtick, an innocent klutz trying to put his best foot forward as the world crumbles around him. But as Hynkel Chaplin taps into something darker, speaking in moments of rage in German gobbledegook, his inflections directly matched to Hitler as seen in Riefenstahl's work. What's jarring from a modern perspective is that Chaplin also finds moments of softer humour when playing the fascist ruler, dancing across palatial offices and clambering up curtains like a cat. The film's issues emerge directly from depicting one of history's most heinous monsters in a comedic light. There's a naïveté to Chaplin's satire, imagining Hitler and the Nazis as cruel xenophobic bullies that could be beaten back with gumption and the right measure of human kindness, a worldview that's a million miles removed from the atrocities and war crimes that were actually being committed. In his 1964 autobiography, Chaplin acknowledged the benefit of hindsight. “Had I known the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”

With even more hindsight, it's possible to now view The Great Dictator as an effective piece of wartime propaganda; a film destined to be remembered for its place in shaping history rather than as an accurate reflection of it. The fact that it's now most remembered for Chaplin's rousing speech during its denouement—essentially breaking character to advocate for peace and armistice—says everything about its position in film canon.

The Criterion edition of The Great Dictator arrives in the UK on Blu-ray from 26th September

Special Features

  • New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • New audio commentary by Charlie Chaplin experts Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran
  • The Tramp and the Dictator (2001), Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft's documentary paralleling the lives of Chaplin and Hitler, including interviews with author Ray Bradbury, director Sidney Lumet, screenwriter Budd Schulberg, and others
  • Two new visual essays, one by Chaplin archivist Cecilia Cenciarelli and one by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance
  • Color production footage shot by Chaplin's half-brother Sydney
  • Barbershop sequence from Sydney Chaplin's 1921 film King, Queen, Joker
  • Deleted barbershop sequence from Chaplin's 1919 film Sunnyside
  • Rerelease trailer
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by film critic Michael Wood, Chaplin's 1940 New York Times defense of his movie, a reprint from critic Jean Narboni on the film's final speech, and Al Hirschfeld's original press book illustrations