The Great Dictator

Charles Chaplin, USA, 1940, Diaphana pour MK2


Wounded in the war at the start of the film and unaware that he’s suffering from amnesia, the little Jewish barber leaves the hospital where he’s been living for years. He’s unaware that his country, Tomania, suffers under the cruel hand of the dictator Hynkel. His barbershop is situated in a street in what is now a ghetto, and is exactly as he’d left it years before. The comedy in the sequence that follows comes from the mix of registers, the tragic context to which the character remains oblivious and his everyday actions, restoring his life to how it was before: He opens the door and a horde of cats comes out almost without remark; he removes the shutters, oblivious to the word ‘Jew’ scrawled on them; he hangs his hat and coat up on the hat stand; raises the blind without noticing the dust and puts on his overcoat. All of this is underpinned by the hectic rhythm of the music, reflecting his inner state. Two different times play against each other in this sequence, we see through his gestures the routines of his life in the past, whilst feeling the lurking threat of the present through the setting, marking the time that has passed. Chaplin suddenly freezes, seeing something out of shot. The camera pans over to show his work area, the chair, washbasin and cash register, all covered in cobwebs. Chaplin doesn’t put in a reverse shot here, preferring to work with continuity of action by a series of pans between the character and the objects he surveys, who gradually understands more of what has happened. This recalls the dawn of silent cinema, filmed from behind an imaginary, see through fourth wall. It culminates with the barber’s quick look to camera. This look makes us witnesses and draws us in, and then a montage sequence offers up parallels between the room and the street. That which he knows and that which he doesn’t yet know. When he finally leaves his space the barber encounters a soldier in a medium shot. He pushes him several times, shoving him out of the frame, trying to make him disappear. By the nature of the wide angle of the shot, Chaplin regains control of the space. Placing the camera where he has, allows us to see Chaplin’s slides and evasive movements as a piece of choreography. The street, previously a forum for despotism and humiliation, becomes a scene in a musical comedy, with the rhythms and beats which must be hit at precisely the right moment for it to work. The audience surmise that a blow to the head will restore the barber to how he should be. In any case, the excerpt tells of a journey to a newfound consciousness.