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This Review Reveals Minor Details About the Plot.

The Führer, the Barber, and the Washerwoman

The Great Dictator (1940) on IMDb

Plot Overview

“The Great Dictator” opens in 1918 during the last days of war, behind the lines of “Tomania”—read Germany—where director Chaplin has fun with a super weapon. As funny as these scenes are, they are harbingers of very destructive technologies. “The dangers of war and its potential consequences were masked by ignorance …. Even the soldiers—who should have known better—for the most part thought about war in terms of France in 1870 and Bohemia in 1866. They should have considered modern war's first battle­field demonstration of its real nature and costs in the slaughter done by breech-loaders and rifled guns in Virginia and Tennessee only a few years earlier” (Roberts 433).

The Jewish barber/soldier saves the life Captain Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) in a Chaplinesque-funny air­plane scene (“I'll see you get the Tomanian Cross for this”), but not in time to deliver the despatches to Gen. Schmelloffel, which could win the war. Tomania loses. Germany lost World War I, but it was a punitive armistice imposed by a fearful France­—complete with heavy reparations­—that set the stage for Germany's eventual rearmament. “The armistice had been granted too swiftly for the Germans to feel the reality of military defeat in fighting on German soil and the evident destruction of their army” (Roberts 456). Chaplin got the idea for this film in 1937, and he put it together in 540 production days from 1937–1939, a time when Germany was beginning to feel its oats. The barber suffering amnesia was confined to an institution as inmate #33 and then he got out. In 1933 Hitler became the German chancellor, a mad dictator. Thus the barber in the movie becomes Hynkel's alter ego­—both played by Chaplin­—, Hynkel being a caricature of Hitler.

star of DavidBut while the barber shop has been gathering dust, there's been changes in the neighbor­hood, in the Jewish ghetto. “Armed with legally acquired powers, the Nazis proceeded to carry out a revolutionary destruction of democratic institutions. ¶“Like Stalin's Russia, The Nazi regime used terror mercilessly against its enemies. It was soon unleashed especially against the Jews” (Roberts 491). This was the world that the (amnesiac) barber was bliss­fully unaware of, and the U.S. didn't want to think about it either, except for Chaplin who saw real evil on the horizon. Chaplin began production in March of 1938, at which time (March 12–14) Germany invaded and absorbed Austria (“the conqueror of Osterlich”), which figures largely in the movie.

In a movie where Chaplin devotes a lot of scenes to humor, mixed incongruously with history that was current events at the time, you would think there wouldn't be time for a romantic plot, but this gets squeezed in as well. The barber and the laundry­woman decide to step out together. Checking the barber shop to see if he is ready, a child discovers him finishing with a customer: “He's polishing a bald man.” This bald pate has its parallel in the high command when Hynkel plays with an inflatable globe in anticipation of his ruling the world. The message is pretty straight­forward, that if you want to be a world conqueror, you don't need to go on a mission of global conquest, just go out with a wise, industrious, beautiful woman, and you'll feel like you're on top of the world—the easy way.


Nazi Germany was what we would term “sexist” for its division of roles by sex. According to their propaganda, “Men's heroic, intellectual natures fitted them for a life of work, politics and courageous struggle, while women's maternal, sentimental natures fitted them for mother­hood and self-sacrifice in support of husband, family and people. … ¶“Deprived of a vote or a voice in the political life of the nation, women were told their political opinions were expressed by their behaviour as house­wives and mothers” (Lacey 190, 203).

Chaplin expressed a different view of woman's role in the person of Jewish laundry­­woman Hannah (Paulette Goddard) who vocally expresses her opinion about the Nazi storm troopers. While Hynkel and Napaloni (Jack Oakie)—Dictator of Bacteria—enjoy a game of one-up­man­ship in their barber chairs, the Jewish barber begins to shave Hannah's face in hers, showing equality of the sexes­—I never said this movie makes sense. Her political opinion is expressed in the domestic sphere with a frying pan applied to the heads of the storm troopers, and in aid of the barber who doesn't know not to resist. The troopers complain to their commander (“A Jew was attacking storm troopers, sir”) who turns out to be Schultz still grateful to the barber for having saved his life, and sympathetic to his actions (“Any brave man would resist.”) Thus this part of the ghetto enjoys official protection, and we see the storm troopers being helpful to the people who in turn revise their opinions of them. It's a perfect illustration of (Prov. 14:34) “Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people.” If the storm troopers but acted like good guys, people would have a higher opinion of them.

“The Great Dictator” has one foot in historical reality and another in the fertile imagination of entertainment genius Charles Chaplin who plays both an every­man Jewish barber—who's survived the Great War—and “the phooey” a caricature of der führer—about to lead the world into the next. Chaplin a contemporary of Hitler—born but a few days apart—has views strongly opposed to those in Mein Kampf. In an impassioned speech closing the movie, Chaplin uses his own voice, in playing the barber supplanting Adenoid Hynkel parodying Adolf Hitler, to tell us: “In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke, it is written that the kingdom of God is within man, not one man nor a group of men, but in all men!” He uses this concept to exhort us all to make a better world. Gee, maybe modern man was too hasty in casting aside religion. “By 1900 Christianity had long lost any plausibility as a potential check to violence in the inter­national sphere” (Roberts 422).

Production Values

” was written and directed by Charles Chaplin. It stars Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, and. Jack Oakie. Oakie gave an out­standing and memor­able performance parodying Mussolini. The other actors did okay, too, but were more like straight men to Chaplin's antics. It's rated as United States: Passed (National Board of Review); United States: TVPG (TV rating); United States: G (1972, certificate #6611.)

This movie seems to be a unique conglomeration of elements, which audiences have accepted as working together. It may be a wooden train but it runs on time. If you can't under­stand the Tomanian speeches (“mussten skrimpen und saven und tighten den belten”), well, then neither can a German speaker. Chaplin's sight gags are hilarious and sprinkled liberally through­out. The concentration camps are country clubs in comparison to the reality, but at the time Chaplin had no way of knowing. “We are anxiously awaiting your release so we can all be together again,” one relative writes. Don't hold your breath. Chaplin's closing speech is a good one.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

Despite being unabashed propaganda “The Great Dictator” has classic written all over it. It holds universal humor that doesn't fade with time. Don't expect to see a modern war movie, though, because it was produced too soon for that, yet none too soon. This is probably one you ought to see some­time just for its cultural contribution if for nothing else, although there's a great deal more to recommend it.

Movie Ratings

Action factor: Decent action scenes. Suitability for children: Suitable for all ages. Video Occasion: Good for Groups. Suspense: Keeps you on the edge of your seat. Special effects: Average special effects. Overall movie rating: Five stars out of five.

Works Cited

Scripture quotations were from the King James Version. Pub. 1611, rev. 1769. Software.

Lacey, Kate. Driving the message home: Nazi propaganda in the private sphere. Reproduced in ed. Lynn Abrams & Elizabeth Harvey, Gender Relations in German History: power, agency and experience from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997. Print.

Roberts, J.M. A History of Europe. New York: Penguin Press, 1997. Print.