Thoughts On: The Great Dictator - Political Satire


The Great Dictator - Political Satire

Thoughts On: The Great Dictator

A Jewish barber suffers through the rise of the maniacal fascist dictator, Adenoid Hynkel.

Discluding war films, political films are often films that really aren't worth much. There are then very few examples of great films with strong political elements at their forefront. It's The Great Dictator, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Dr. Strangelove that make up this list entirely for me. However, what makes Mr. Smith Goes To Washington a classic, in my opinion, hasn't got much to do with the political side of things - this is primarily just the setting of the film. The bulk of the thematic focus is on a hero's endeavour before a looming social presence (the government). This means that Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is tantamount to a courtroom drama in my view; a great movie in the same respect Judgement At Nuremberg, Anatomy Of A Murder or To Kill A Mockingbird is. So, that boils down our list of great political pictures down to Dr. Strangelove and The Great Dictator. If I were to pick a favourite out of these two films, I'd have to lean towards The Great Dictator. Despite the opening being pretty poor and the direction being nowhere near the level of Kubrick's, there is Chaplin at the core of this picture. And Chaplin is notoriously a great story teller - it's this that's arguably the key factor in what has made his films and image last through the ages. We see this mimicked in his constant comparison to Buster Keaton. These two figures are quintessential figures of the silent era, outshining even great artists of a more serious disposition - Murnau, Vertov, Eisenstein, Méliès, Griffith, Lang, Gance. Along with these monumental names comes the titles of great filmmakers - Keaton was one of these. His superior control of narrative through a cinematic lens, his effortless creation and portrayal of a comedic universe and incessant desire to play and experiment with the form heralds him an inspiring and undeniably important artist to all aspiring directors and filmmakers working on the technical side of cinema. But, with Chaplin we see a great story teller standing in face of some of the greatest filmmakers of all time - all the way from Keaton to Kubrick.

The difference between great direction and great story telling lies in the audience. An audience can often get a feel of great direction when they are sucked into the narrative simply because the director is doing a good job. But, without analysing camera movement, blocking and so on whilst putting the experience of the narrative aside, it's hard to really get a grip of what a great director is - or even what they do. This basically means that a great director is a term for those who delve deeper into film than most people, it's for those who are interested in the form and design of cinematic stories. But, whilst this is a side of cinema easy to revere, easy to indulge in and break down, it's not really what cinema is for. As with music, the most important thing is the final product. Yes, you can have Van Halen and Hendrix on guitar, Bonham on drums, Freddy Mercury and Michael Jackson on vocals in your dream band, but what matters is the song they come together and create. You can't just throw together a bit of Moby Dick, Eruption, Bohemian Rhapsody, Purple Haze and Thriller and expect the best song ever. A monkey with a laptop is probably capable of making a better song than you somehow throwing these behemoths at each other and hoping for the best. What this says about art is that the final product is the irrevocable crux of judgement - is all that really matters. When we turn back to cinema, we see the story, the actual film, as the final product. This is all that matters. A great director can do what exactly? What can they do that you wouldn't rather a great story teller do? This is the case for Chaplin. However, it is not a case to say that great directors are nonsense we need rid of. Of course not. Many great directors are simultaneously great story tellers - just look to the likes of Murnau, Kubrick, Scorsese, Capra, Truffaut and Spielberg. They know how to captivate an audience, they can produce that magical final product, and they can do it with a great control and management of its assembly. What all of this segues into is The Great Dictator as a political film. In seeing Chaplin as a great story teller, I ask if this, in respect to this film, is despite the political focus?

To get into this, I'll have to break down my argument against political films. The easiest way to do this would be to ask you to consider these films...

.. and then ask if you'd like to re-watch them. If the answer is yes, I'd then ask: why? In such, I proffer that you'd likely provide an answer pointing towards the entertaining elements of the film - like I did with Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Of course, I ignore those who like these films beyond that - those who are probably politically minded--we'll get into that in a minute. However, what these films are tantamount to, for me, are films that are said to be important; stories hat need to be told:

None of these films are bad - not at all. But, they hold only a draw for a first time watch. It's likely we then give these films an Oscar and then never think about them again. This, like political films, is because they have a blatant agenda or point that overshadows the story - one that is likely better expressed in another form. These films are like history, religious or current event study classes. For this, there is something to take away from them, but is this tantamount to something we'd take from...

... I say, no, not at all. Why? Well, I think we'll leave the serious, important, true story films for another time. (Yes, Goodfellas is based on a true story, but it clearly isn't a particularly important or serious story needing to be told). With the former political pictures, which we'll focus on from here on out, the fault is in politics itself. Cinema is, at its core, imagination, is ideas, is philosophy told through poignant allegories. Whilst philosophy is a universal subject, one we may all impart upon by simply leaning back and letting the cogs whir, politics is notoriously divisive. The answer as to why is incredibly simple. Politics and philsophy are so nearly the same thing; they are approached in the same basic manner - you sit back and you think. However, the huge point of distinguishment is the fact that politics is a psuedo-call to action. Politics means to effect all of us on a large scale, meaning political thoughts are lagely percieved as notions of control. For this reason, politics in the hands of the everyday person is a recipe for disaster. As we all know through current events, politics is in large part just a game. It is philosophy turned into a competition whereby you are on this side or that. This is why I honestly hate politics - it comes with a coarse air of pretension. The beauty of philsophy is the inherent acceptance of learning and discussion. We think and build ideas primarily for the sake of talking - little more. With this, philosophy is recognisably one of the most silly things we do as humans. Instead of building homes, getting food, paying bills, we sit and wonder why? What's funny is that the building of homes, organising of society and so on, is the fundamental purpose of politics. It's a practical management of the world around us that has unfortunately been injected with a poisonous idea of half-assed philosophy. This is what produces the horrible tension in the air in a room when you bring up politics. Instead of hearing someone's thoughts on a subject, you hear pretentious propaganda from the opposite side or someone who actually knows what they're talking about (because they agree with you). This isn't true for all political discussion, but it isn't an over-exaggeration to imply that this is the case way more often than not.

Seeing the core faults in political thinking as being stigmatised philosophy that poses as personal threat on a macroscopic level, it's easy to see why they're not the best foundations of films. Moreover, films, as touched on, are imagination, thoughts, philosophy. To confuse them with politics is to sully the crux of filmmaking - story telling. And so everything becomes transparent. To have a focus on your story, to tell a cinemtaically poignant tale, one needs a philosophical approach to narrative, not a political one that is meant for action, pragmantism, one that is easily construed as invasive and divisive. It's not about sides, propaganda, competition, games, agendas, "I'm right, you're wrong and there's nothing you can do about it", films serve people, they do not use them. We see this in the simply concept of a theme. A theme is a reoccurring element of your film, a focus that is there to tie your narrative to anyone. For example...

I'm assuming a greatly significant percentage of people haven't lost someone on a ship, haven't been on a sinking cruise liner that hit an ice berg, broke in half, leaving thousands to freeze or drown and you to float on a door watching your new-found love die in your arms. However, we all get Titanic. Why? Themes. These are universal ideas/thoughts/emotions such as love, friendship, loss, compassion, adventure and tragedy that we all get - no matter our perspective or experience. What this says about films is that they are there to talk to the individuals that make up the mass. Politics can talk about masses, sometimes to them, but can rarely penetrate deeper into the crowd in the same respect cinema can. The recognition of this is clear throughout history with propaganda being a huge focus of political leaders...


So, an overview of why political films aren't ever great films lies in their design as unphilosophical and unentertaining means of shouting points rather than telling a story. However, this is not to say that political films are all trash; most films cited have phenomenal elements to them: the astounding application of Eisenstein's cinematic theories in Potemkin and the beautiful opening above the clouds of Triumph Of The Will as easy examples. In such, I mean to say that political films can be good. But, we come back to The Great Dictator to ask the question: are these films good or great in spite of their politics?

In my opinion, the answer is of course, yes. As touched on with the comparison of The Passion Of The Christ, Hotel Rwanda and Spotlight, these films are taken as cinematic lessons in religion, history and current events. In this, these films often hold intentions expressed in an awkward context. The result of this is us seeing the film once, throwing an Oscar at it as to agree that it's important so we can all get on with our lives in search of better films. In the end, it's probably best put forth in The Nice Guys...

Yes, you can discuss corruption and dying birds in a porn film, but don't we all skip past that to get to the good parts? In such, I think it becomes obvious that you can go to the cinema for many reasons, politics probably isn't the best of them though. This is what The Great Dictator speaks to best in my opinion. It's not so much about saying Hitler was a bad guy...

... but, taking a shit on him. This is something that, looking through a political looking-glass, you shouldn't really be doing. Good political discussion is about a true philosophical debate meeting actual pragmatic action. The Great Dictator does not resemble this. It is much rather pure entertainment at face value, a testament to comedy if you want to look a little deeper into its fabric. And it's for the comedic commentary that I see both The Great Dictator and Dr. Strangelove as great films. They use their political elements to reverse the shit storm that rains when you bring politics up in the wrong context. Instead of taking to a stage under false pretenses of being a stand-up comedians just to protest, Chaplin does something the likes of Carlin, Silverman, Burr or Chappelle would do. They take politics as a topic and make light of it. Yes, they make statements simultaneously, but they are in the subtext and usually there if you want them. They aren't the show being sold to you. This comedic approach to comedy best speaks of its purpose. It's there to poke at the sensitive underside of human perspective and action. Whether it's a mother-in-law, rape, fart or Holocaust joke, the intent (if the joke is good) is there to release tension, is there to capitalise on a feel-good reflex in face of an annoying, awkward, horrifying or tragic concept.

This is the strongest argument for political films. When political satire is good as it is in The Great Dictator, the film becomes self-contained and a means to an end. In this, the film's ultimate goal is set-up and then achieved as a narrative goal would be - within a finite space and time. The Great Dictator means to make people feel better about threatening fascism, means to look down on tyranny and emotionally raise us towards something of compassion. This doesn't mean that The Great Dictator changed the world and stopped WWII. That is the pretension of blindly political films - they mean to be more than they're worth. Films are usually 2 hour experiences that can last in our memory if poignant, but they very, very, rarely change the state of the world. Films simply give us a rush of good feelings - a means to an end, the entertainment of the masses. This is a very worthwhile tool, which justifies the concept of entertainment in all artistic forms, but is one that works best when it knows its place - just ask Michael Bay...

So, the lesson The Great Dictator teaches is not just confined to political filmmaking, but filmmaking in general. Be a great story teller. Have something to say, but be able to say it well. This means a focus on plot, character, genre - some kind of entertaining factor. All great films have it, they don't rely on subject or a singular element of themselves. They manage the art form in a way that facilitates all the artistic pretension one could wish to exude, but for a story, for an audience. Don't be a...

... fucking fascist motherfucker when making your film, have some democratic reserve and think of the people you serve.

To see why this film is apart of the Virtue Series, check out book 2 of The DSU on the blog or get the book for free from the Amazon bookstore:

< Previous     post in the series     Next >

Previous post:

Her - In Quest Of Receding Intimacy

Next post:

Cœur Fidèle - Pure Cinematic Poetry

More from me:

No comments: