The Great Dictator is a comedy film by Charlie Chaplin released in October 1940. Like most Chaplin films, he wrote, produced, and directed, in addition to starring as the lead. Having been the only Hollywood film maker to continue to make silent films well into the period of sound films, this was Chaplin's first true talking picture as well as his most commercially successful film. More importantly, it was the first major feature film of its period to bitterly satirize Nazism and Adolf Hitler.
At the time of its first release, the United States was still formally at peace with Nazi Germany. Chaplin's film advanced a stirring, controversial condemnation of Hitler, fascism, antisemitism, and the Nazis, the latter of whom he excoriates in the film as "machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts".
The film begins during a battle of World War I. The protagonist is an unnamed Jewish private (Charlie Chaplin), a barber by profession and is fighting for the Central Powers in the army of the fictional nation of Tomainia (an allusion to ptomaine poisoning), comically blundering through the trenches in a tract of combat scenes. Upon hearing a fatigued pilot pleading for help, the private valiantly attempts to rescue the exhausted officer, Commander Schultz (Reginald Gardiner). The two board Schultz's nearby airplane and fly off, escaping enemy fire in the nick of time. Schultz reveals that he is carrying important dispatches that could win the Tomainian war. However, the plane quickly loses fuel and crashes in a marsh. Both Schultz and the private survive. As medics arrive, Commander Schultz gives them the dispatches, but is told that the war has just ended and Tomainia lost.
The scene cuts to victory celebrations, newspaper headlines, the hospitalization and release of the private, and to a speech given twenty years later by Adenoid Hynkel (cf. Adolf Hitler, also played by Chaplin in a double role), now the ruthless dictator of Tomainia, who has undertaken an endeavor to persecute Jews throughout the land, aided by Minister of the Interior Garbitsch (compare Joseph Goebbels, played by Henry Daniell) and Minister of War Herring (compare Hermann Göring, played by Billy Gilbert). The symbol of Hynkel's fascist regime is the "double cross" (compare the Nazi swastika) and Hynkel himself speaks a dramatic, macaronic parody of the German language (reminiscent of Hitler's own fiery speeches), "translated" at humorously obvious parts in the speech by an overly concise English-speaking news voice-over. This broadcast is identified as being carried over the Parimutuel Radio Network, a play on the Mutual Broadcasting System popular at the time as well as parimutuel betting on horse racing.
The Jewish private and barber, who had been hospitalized for the past twenty years, having suffered memory loss from the plane crash, is blissfully unaware of Hynkel's rise to power and now, at last, returns to his barbershop in the Jewish ghetto, shocked when storm troopers paint "Jew" on the windows of his shop. In the ensuing slapstick scuffle with the stormtroopers, Hannah (Paulette Goddard), a beautiful resident of the ghetto, knocks both Stormtroopers on the head with a frying pan. The barber finds a friend and ultimately a love interest in Hannah. Soon, the barber is almost lynched by Stormtroopers, but is saved when Commander Schultz, now a high official in Hynkel's government, intervenes. Meanwhile, Schultz recognizes the barber (who is reminded of WWI by Schultz and therefore gets his memory back) and, though surprised to find him a Jew, Schultz orders the storm troopers to leave him and Hannah alone.
Hynkel, in addition, has relaxed his stance on Tomainian Jewry in an attempt to woo a Jewish financier into giving him a loan to support his regime. Egged on by Garbitsch, Hynkel has become obsessed with the idea of world domination. In one famous scene, Hynkel dances with a large, inflatable globe, while thinking of being Emperor of the world to the tune of the Prelude to Act I of Richard Wagner's Lohengrin at the end of which it suddenly pops in his hands, like a balloon. This seemed to be a premonition of the end of his regime and his unfulfilled ambitions sooner or later.
On Garbitsch's advice, Hynkel has planned to invade the neighboring country of Osterlich (likely a corruption of Österreich, the German name for Austria) and needs the loan to finance the invasion. The financier refuses, and Hynkel reinstates his persecution of the Jews, this time to an even greater extent. Schultz voices his objection to the pogrom and shows his empathy towards Jews; Hynkel denounces Schultz as a supporter of democracy and a traitor, and orders Schultz placed in a concentration camp. Schultz flees to the ghetto and begins planning to overthrow the Hynkel regime.
Schultz, along with the barber, Hannah, and other members of the ghetto, meet to discuss their subversive plot. Schultz says that in order to decide who will carry out this plot (which involves a suicide mission to blow up Hynkel's palace), a coin will be placed in one of five puddings, and the person who receives the one with the coin in it is to carry out the mission. However, Hannah, trying to make a pacifistic statement, has placed a coin in every dessert, leading to one of Chaplin's most comical scenes; finally, they all decide it is best to heed Hannah's advice not to attempt the suicide mission. Eventually, however, both Schultz and the barber are captured and condemned to the camp.
Hynkel is initially opposed by Benzino Napaloni (a portmanteau of Benito Mussolini, Napoleon Bonaparte, and benzene, played by Jack Oakie), dictator of Bacteria, in his plans to invade Osterlich. Hynkel invites Napaloni to talk the situation over in Tomainia, however, and attempts to impress Napaloni with a display of military might and psychological warfare, and thus invites Napaloni to a military show. The show turns out to be a disaster, totally failing to impress Napaloni. After some friction and a comedic food fight between the two leaders, a deal is made. Hynkel immediately breaks the deal, and the invasion proceeds again. Hannah, who has since emigrated to Osterlich to escape Hynkel, once again finds herself living under Hynkel's regime.
Schultz and the barber escape from the camp wearing Tomainian uniforms. Border guards mistake the barber for Hynkel, to whom he is nearly identical in appearance. Conversely, Hynkel, on a duck-hunting trip, falls overboard and is mistaken for the barber and is arrested by his own soldiers.
The barber, now assuming Hynkel's identity, is taken to the capital of Osterlich to make a victory speech. Garbitsch, in introducing "Hynkel" to the throngs, decries free speech and other supposedly traitorous and outdated ideas. In contrast, the barber then makes a rousing speech, reversing Hynkel's anti-Semitic policies and declaring that Tomainia and Osterlich will now be a free nation and a democracy. He also calls for humanity in general to break free from dictatorships and use science and progress to make the world better instead.
Hannah, who was previously mistreated by Tomainian police agents looking for the barber, hears the barber's speech on the radio, and is amazed when "Hynkel" addresses her directly: "Hannah, can you hear me? Wherever you are, look up, Hannah. The clouds are lifting. The sun is breaking through. We are coming out of the darkness into the light. We are coming into a new world, a kindlier world, where men will rise above their hate, their greed and brutality. Look up, Hannah. The soul of man has been given wings, and at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow—into the light of hope, into the future, the glorious future that belongs to you, to me, and to all of us. Look up, Hannah. Look up". Hannah looks up with an optimistic smile.
The Dictator's Speech
I'm sorry but I don't want to be an Emperor, that's not my business. I don't want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible, Jew, gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another, human beings are like that. We all want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone and the earth is rich and can provide for everyone.
The way of life can be free and beautiful. But we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men's souls, has barricaded the world with hate;
has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed.
We have developed speed but we have shut ourselves in:
machinery that gives abundance has left us in want.
Our knowledge has made us cynical,
our cleverness hard and unkind.
We think too much and feel too little:
More than machinery we need humanity;
More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.
Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.
The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men, cries out for universal brotherhood for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. 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: the hate of men will pass and dictators die and the power they took from the people, will return to the people and so long as men die [now] liberty will never perish. . .
Soldiers: don't give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you, who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel, who drill you, diet you, treat you as cattle, as cannon fodder.
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. You have the love of humanity in your hearts. You don't hate, only the unloved hate. Only the unloved and the unnatural. Soldiers: don't fight for slavery, fight for liberty.
In the seventeenth chapter of Saint 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, the people.
You the people have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You the people have the power to make life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy let's 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 you the future and old age and security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie. They do not fulfil their promise, they never will. Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfil that promise. Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. 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!
Look up! Look up! The clouds are lifting, the sun is breaking through. We are coming out of the darkness into the light. We are coming into a new world. A kind new world where men will rise above their hate and brutality.
The soul of man has been given wings, and at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow, into the light of hope, into the future, that glorious future that belongs to you, to me and to all of us. Look up. Look up.