The Great Dictator

Written from a comfortable professorship at the Institute of Social Research in Frankfurt, Theodor Adorno’s “Commitment” (1) is nonetheless haunted by the spectre of fascism. Like “Meditations on Metaphysics: After Auschwitz”, his sustained treatment of representation and atrocity, “Commitment” is also haunted by art’s potential for mimesis. (2) That obsession with mimesis gives Adorno an evident context in Marxist æsthetic writing. The tendency, particularly within the American communist context of the post-war period, was to latch an artist’s political sympathies to his or her genre or medium. Socialist sympathies were thus imagined to emerge primarily from the school of social realism that produced Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children and John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. (3) Within this historical moment, complexity and fragmentation indicated cooperation with the bourgeoisie, while stylistic plainness and ideological unity were privileged as properly revolutionary. A more complex, less dogmatic version of these æsthetic occurs in Louis Althusser’s “A Letter On Art”, in which he argues that art is a form of seeing, perceiving and feeling, in which we know the ideology from the work emerges, and also how the work is internally distantiated from that ideology. (4)

Yet, Adorno does not quite fit with the aforementioned company, in that style is not naturalized to politics, despite the privileged category of mimesis. “Commitment” distinguishes committed from autonomous art. The former category constantly warns its readers and listeners of the catastrophes that threaten both small communities and the larger culture, while the latter category sees artistic failure as the impending catastrophe. Adorno suggests that art fails in its commitments because it cannot produce accurate representations, because it must reduce its subject for the scope of its form or moment. He aligns Chaplin’s anti-Nazi satire The Great Dictator (1940) with this category of failed art:

The group which engineered the seizure of power in Germany was also certainly a gang. But the problem is that such elective affinities are not extra-territorial: they are rooted within society itself. That is why the buffoonery of fascism, evoked by Chaplin as well, is at the same time also its ultimate horror. If this is suppressed, and a few sorry exploiters of greengrocers are mocked, where key positions of economic power are actually at issue, the attack misfires. The Great Dictator loses all satirical force and becomes obscene when a Jewish girl can hit a line of storm-troopers on the head with a pan without being torn to pieces. For the sake of political commitment, political reality is trivialized. (5)

Regardless of his own political inclinations, or perhaps because of them, Adorno aligns himself with classical standards by which mimesis is imagined as the highest goal of artistic production. One can imagine an extension of this argument, in which Chaplin is chastised by failing to “hold up a mirror to nature” or to show fascism as it truly was. (6) The key words of the passage gesture towards the real: certainly, actually and reality. Chaplin’s satiric effort, Adorno argues, is insufficient because it cannot create a one-to-one ratio between life under fascism and life as portrayed on screen. (7)

Like Adorno, I see The Great Dictator as a spectacular, well-intentioned failure. I differ with him in my conception of the relationship of mimesis to satire. The Great Dictator fails because it too closely echoes Adolf Hitler’s body, while drawing on all of the associations that Chaplin’s body carried into his artistic production. Slapstick, a genre that relies primarily on the artist’s body, undermines traditional conceptions of heroic masculinity by enthroning a beleaguered, victimized character as the hero of the day. One need only recall the strange, silent dignity of Buster Keaton’s face as he loses his prized sailing vessel in The Boat (Keaton and Edward F. Cline, 1921) or remember Groucho Marx’s bemusement at the antics of Chico and Harpo in Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933) to locate the slapstick hero. The problem of Chaplin’s satire, then, seems two-fold: first, it attempts an accurate re-creation of Hitler’s body and, second, it is over-determined by the well-established generic constraints of satire.

The laws of slapstick that governed Chaplin’s performance – including his famous timing of a laugh every half a minute – ordain that the object of physical abuse must also elicit sympathy. After decades as a slapstick performer, Chaplin’s gentle, reflexive face immediately catalysed sympathy within his audience because his body was so battered. To put Hitler in the role of Adenoid Hynkel, played by such an iconographic figure, demands that the audience love him. By reconstructing and occupying Hitler’s body, Chaplin simultaneously elicits sympathy for and diminishes the danger of the Dictator by placing him in the familiar and beloved body of the Tramp. Like Robert Payne, I fear that Hynkel/Hitler is “altogether too delightful” in these moments. (8) Naturally, I am not suggesting that Chaplin had fascist sympathies; like Adorno, I consider his work committed. One might argue that Chaplin crafted The Great Dictator as a defence of Sid Chaplin, the Jewish half-brother who raised him, and Paulette Levy Goddard, his then wife, against the rising forces of anti-Semitism. Indeed, Chaplin’s autobiography recalls the experience of trying to write a film “for Paulette” (9). Chaplin personalized the project by naming Goddard’s character after his own mother, Hannah. The personal references in the film make Chaplin’s alliances clear; nonetheless, his methods make it impossible to satirize Hitler’s policy towards Jews. (10)

Because they were critics of the culture industry that produced mainstream film, Adorno and other scholars of the Frankfurt School seldom sustained analysis of the productive ways the body of the performer can resonate between performances; this resonance is not the concern of either Marxist theory or praxis. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Benjamin imagines that this resonance is an extension of alienation. Nonetheless, the epoch of mechanical reproduction ensures that the body of a performer is recognizable in each performance; the circulation of movie posters and fan magazines ensures this automatic familiarity. Benjamin argues that:

The Great Dictator

[The actor’s] reflected image has become separable, transportable. And where is it transported? Before the public. Never for a moment does the screen actor cease to be conscious of this fact. While facing the camera he knows that he will ultimately face the public, the consumers who constitute the market. This market, where he offers not only his labor but his whole self, his heart and soul, is beyond his reach. (11)

Easily reproducible images ensure that the actor’s body is a commodity. Benjamin posits a kind of alienation between the actor and his body that mirrors alienation of the worker from his labour, because the body can be represented where the actor is not. Though the body and labour belong wholly to the actor or labourer, these possessions are wrenched away by reification.

Mechanical reproduction also ensures that the body maintains uniformity with each public display. Even in Chaplin’s historical moment, make-up could preserve the face of the star for maximum continuity between performances. Certainly Chaplin’s body is “preserved” in this way in The Great Dictator. His prematurely white hair and moustache are dyed black to preserve the history of the Tramp from his first appearance in 1911 and to ensure a more “accurate” replication of Hitler’s body. Because of the visual power of the film media, this tendency to focus on mimesis continues to the present day, wherein Nicole Kidman wears elaborate prosthetics to look as much like Virginia Woolf as possible in The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002) and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is filmed in an elaborate trench system to make him look as short as Truman Capote in Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005). Certainly spectators know that what they are looking at is not real; nonetheless, the commodified bodies of famous people – both living and dead – are replicated with exaction.

Sometimes bodies are so highly visible that distinctive parts are imagined as its exclusive property. Chaplin’s moustache had its own cultural moment, before the rise of Hitler. After Hitler, the appearance of the postage-stamp moustache distinctly evokes the dictator. Anti-war protesters need only draw a one square-inch ink-blank stain on the face of George W. Bush or Tony Blair to let their audience know their precise intention. Despite Chaplin’s early 20th century fame, the viewers of such agitprop are not asked to think “George W. Bush – what a tramp”. Rather, we are supposed to think that Bush is a fascist. The moustache has become unmistakably Hitler’s. When anti-communist novelist Martin Amis writes “there is no moral difference between the big moustache and the little moustache, or the middling moustache of Vladimir Illyich Lenin” in his biography of Stalin, there are no questions as to what and whom he refers. (12) Because of this association of Hitler with the postage-stamp moustache, the intervening decades have produced profoundly troubling contexts for looking at Chaplin’s body. (13) Such imbrications of body and ideology could not be accomplished without the production of the visual commodity.

Yet, before there was Hitler, the postage-stamp moustache was uniquely Chaplin’s and a symbol of his liminal status within the film industry. At the height of his comic powers and fame, the moustache was so entangled with his identity that Chaplin could walk around Hollywood unfettered by the possibility of recognition. Without the stage moustache, he was anonymous. Despite its aggressive strangeness, the Tramp persona was associated with a dangerously subversive sexuality. Variety founder Sime Silverman denounced Chaplin, reviewing the short film, Work (1915), with memorable hyperbole: “Never was anything dirtier placed upon the screen.” Similarly, The Tramp (1915) was criticized by the National Board of Censorship (USA) in a “Special Bulletin on Motion Picture Comedies” that objected to “the suggestive wriggling of the body of a man”. Rather than perform as a desexualised comic clown, Chaplin aggressively performed his “comic play with sexuality and anality” (14). Unlike other clowns, who fail at love for the pleasure of the audience, Chaplin used his small body – sometimes filming it to look even smaller next to his leading ladies – to sexualise the comic figure. In his most famous movies, Gold Rush (1925) and Modern Times (1936), the Tramp’s small frame and absurd moustache are no hindrance to romantic success. (15)

The Great Dictator

Troublingly, Chaplin uses that same “romantic” body to portray Hitler’s violence and insanity. The fluidity and artistry of his dances in Modern Times and City Lights (1921) are transferred to Adenoid Hynkel, the Dictator figure. In the most famous and prolonged sequence featuring Hynkel, Chaplin’s acrobatics portray the Dictator’s homicidal inner world. Garbitsch (Henry Daniell), Hynkel’s Joseph Goebbels-like advisor, proposes an invasion of Osterick, promising an Aryan world with “blonde people and a brunet dictator”. Hynkel climbs the curtain in terror, biting his knuckles, and admitting that he has become scared of himself. Once Garbitsch leaves, Hynkel stares tenderly at the world over which he has been promised dominion. He taps it and it springs into the air like a balloon. For three silent minutes, Hynkel dances an elaborate ballet, bumping the globe with his buttocks, caressing it as though it is a beloved partner. When the balloon pops, he weeps in seeming awareness of the excesses of his need. In the long scene, Chaplin’s satire fails utterly. Can one actually imagine Hitler weeping at the destruction of the world when destruction was his intention? Can one imagine Hitler admitting fear, when he was a limitless source of terror? Underneath the rigid uniform and commanding language, the dance and the tears make it evident that the body belongs to the Tramp, not to the Dictator. The connection is ensured by the mirroring of the dance sequence with a scene in which the Tramp deftly shaves a customer to the tune and cadence of Johannes Brahms’s Hungarian Dance Number 5. (16) Chaplin’s body, beloved and familiar as it was to audiences, cannot generate fear. As Robert Payne writes, “what grace [Hynkel] possesses he receives only by the grace of Chaplin, and even this dignity is often withdrawn” (17). I would extend this argument to Hitler; the filmic Hitler manqué is given grace and dignity by Chaplin’s graceful performance.

The same attraction to the iconic Tramp plagues the film’s most famous scene and undercuts its most direct political rhetoric. The Jewish Barber and the Dictator are both played by Chaplin in identical makeup. The Barber serves as a Harriet Tubman figure, helping Jews escape to Osterick, not knowing that the Dictator intends on invading it. On his way to a political rally to win the Osterickians to his cause, the Dictator is mistaken for the Barber and is arrested. The Barber is mistaken for the Dictator, dressed in his clothes, and asked to make a speech in support of the new state. To continue the charade and save his own life, the Barber takes the podium from Garbitsch, who introduces him as “the Future Emperor of the World”. Looking directly into the camera, the Barber offers a message far different from the Dictator’s:

I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone […] 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 […] Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world […] victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. […] Soldiers – don’t fight for slavery, fight for liberty! […] Then in the name of democracy let’s use that power – let us all unite! […] By the promise of [democracy], brutes have risen to power, but they lie. […] Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight […] to free the world, to do away with national barriers, do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. […] Soldiers – in the name of democracy, let us unite!

Of Chaplin’s pacifist intentions, I have no doubt. Later, the full text of his speech – edited here for brevity – was published with the title “Recruiting Humanity” in the New-Wave era Essays on Chaplin, where it enhanced Chaplin’s reputation as a self-proclaimed peacemonger. (18). Nonetheless, his intentions are once again undermined by the visual mimesis of the film media. Frozen in frame, Hynkel is recognizably Hitler, and the Barber is recognizably Hynkel. The uniform, with its tapered legs and broad greatcoat, are a close replica of Hitler’s. The platform, with the distinctive tripartite microphone and double-bannered insignia to the right and left of the stage, are distinct evocations of the Third Reich. And, yet, the words are not Hitler’s. The film has moved from using the Tramp’s body to assure us of Hitler’s absurdity to using Hitler’s body to communicate Chaplin’s message. The profound entanglements of body and personality within visual culture make this manœuvre politically untenable.

The Great Dictator

Ventriloquising Bertolt Brecht’s critics, Adorno argues that “when the social contract with reality is abandoned, and literary works no longer speak as though they were reporting facts, hairs start to bristle”. (19) Within Chaplin’s film, there are two distinct layers of mimesis. The first is what I call embodied mimesis, or visual mimesis, by which the audience recognizes the filmic body and its signifying practices within the culture of celebrity. The second layer I would call the mimesis of reportage. At the former, Chaplin fails spectacularly; indeed, hairs bristle when one sees Hannah (Paulette Goddard) with the sun on her face in the bright, clean yard of the “concentration camp” as portrayed in The Great Dictator. The film attempts to report the facts of Nazi terror when the Tramp is strung up for refusing to paint “Jew” on the window of his barbershop. Later, Hynkel promises a Jewish financier that he will restore citizenship rights to Jews if he will lend money to the Reich; the financier denies his offer, calling him a “medieval madman”. Enraged, Hynkel promises to send the Storm Troopers to the ghetto for “a little medieval entertainment”. That evocation of both spectacular public violence and the mediæval pogrom suggest that Chaplin knew precisely what kind of enemy he lampooned, but chose to de-claw him nonetheless. Nonetheless, the film succeeds at embodied mimesis. As he intended, Chaplin produced an accurate representation of Hitler’s body, which he refers to in his autobiography as an “imitation of me” (20). Yet, his efforts leave the audience with the troubling image of a comic in Hitler’s clothes, pleading for peace and justice. The mimesis of reportage is, consequently, where Chaplin fails.

Outside the reel, and within the real, The Great Dictator has peculiar resonances with another politically committed film of its era. Six years before Chaplin’s satire, German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was commissioned to film the 1934 Nuremberg Rallies, to give the German people an artful glance of their new leader. In Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935), Hitler and his lieutenants sound alarmingly like candidates for political office. They do not speak of Jews as though they were vermin; they do not promise to exterminate any group or political faction. Like Chaplin’s Barber shouting “Let us unite!”, Hitler’s concluding speech in the film assures the audience that “we are united. We want a society without class or caste.” What accounts for this strange similarity between Hitler and Chaplin? Perhaps the echoes signify nothing but Hitler’s formidable ability to lie, but perhaps they also evince Adorno’s claim. In pursuit of committed art, truth is not a privileged category.

This article has been refereed.

Also consulted

Frank Scheide, “The Great Dictator and Chaplin’s Tramp as an Awakened ‘Rip Van Winkle'”, in Dan Kamin, pp. 16-32.


  1. Theodor Adorno, “Commitment”, in Aesthetics and Politics: The Key Texts of the Classic Debate within German Marxism, translated and edited by Ronald Taylor (New York: Verso, 1990).
  2. I extend my thanks to my earliest readers of this essay – Professors Catherine Paul, Mark Charney and Martin Jacobi of Clemson University – who served as my thesis committee, and nurtured the arguments and writing contained herein. In the later days of revision, my husband Chip Lightweis-Goff read drafts and urged me to take some time off. My dear friend Keith W. Davis helpfully retrieved library books and listened to me panic about upcoming deadlines. This essay would be a poorer one had I written it in isolation.
  3. During its heyday in America, the American Communist Party’s newspaper, The Daily Worker, also printed literary and film criticism. Abner Berry’s review of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man denounced the figurative texture of the novel, claiming that was “written in an affected, pretentious, other worldly [sic] style to suit the kingpins of world white supremacy” (Larry Neal, “Ellison’s Zoot Suit”, in John F. Callahan (Ed.), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: A Casebook (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 86.) Such criticism echoes – however vulgarly—the more scholarly versions of political criticism in Louis Althusser and Adorno’s arguments for mimesis.
  4. Louis Althusser, “A Letter on Art”, in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, translated by Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), p. 152.
  5. Adorno, pp. 184-5.
  6. Other viewers criticized Chaplin for too-successful mimesis. In The Great God Pan, Robert Payne argues that Hynkel’s scenes with Garbitsch constitute “one of the greatest [moments] in all Chaplin’s work, but it is not comedy. It is at once truth and tragic farce, an exploration of the character of Hitler leading to the pure mimicry of the dictator.” Robert Payne, The Great God Pan: A Biography of the Tramp Played by Charlie Chaplin (New York: Hermitage House, 1952), p. 254.
  7. Writing from the cultural context of existentialism, André Bazin argues for the quality of Chaplin’s satire because of the lack of mimesis. “[Chaplin] annihilates [Hitler] by recreating in front of him a perfect, absolute, necessary ‘Dictator’ from whom we are absolutely free of any historical and psychological engagement […] Hinkel [sic] does not inspire hatred, nor pity, nor rage, nor fear. Hinkel is Hitler’s nothingness. Having disposed of his existence, [Chaplin] took it back in order to destroy it utterly.” André Bazin, “Pastiche or Postiche, or Nothingness over a Moustache”, translated by Jean Bodon, in Essays on Chaplin (New Haven: University of New Haven Press, 1985), p. 17. Twenty years later, Charles Musser would write that existentialist analyses of Chaplin “neutralize the radical possibilities and intent of the films” because they ignore “a social world where class plays a crucial role”. Charles Musser, “Work, Ideology, and Chaplin’s Tramp”, in Robert Sklar (Ed.), Resisting Images (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), p. 62.
  8. Payne, p. 253.
  9. Before the release of The Great Dictator, rumours circulated that Chaplin was Jewish. Chaplin considered these rumours “an honor,” because they placed him in the company of his Jewish half-siblings (391). The ambiguity of his ethnicity continues to the present day. Laurie Stone’s Laughing in the Dark (Hopewell, New Jersey: Ecco Press, 1997), a social history of comedy, posits Chaplin as a self-loathing “Jewish comedian” who, in the fashion on the day, both changed his name and refused to play Jewish character (p. 4). Both assertions are false.
  10. Richard Attenborough’s biopic Chaplin (1992) represents a Hollywood awash with rumours of Chaplin’s Jewishness. Before the filming of The Great Dictator, Chaplin received “a repellent propaganda paperback entitled Jews are Looking at You” in which he was featured with the caption “this little Jewish tumbler [is] as disgusting as he is boring” (Dan Kamin, “‘Who is This Man? (Who Looks Like Charlie Chaplin)’”, Chaplin: The Dictator and the Tramp (London: British Film Institute, 2004), p. 5. The ambiguity of his ethnicity continues to the present day. Laurie Stone’s Laughing in the Dark, a social history of comedy, posits Chaplin as a self-loathing “Jewish comedian” who, in the fashion on the day, hid his Jewishness (p. 4). Her assertion is false.
  11. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, translated by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), p. 231.
  12. Martin Amis, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (New York: Miramax Books, 2002), p. 82.
  13. Hitler constructed a definitive visual image by grooming obsessively and allowing only authorized photography by Heinrich Hoffman. Commenting on Hoffman’s thousands of photographs of Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum notes that “one of the revelations […] is how calculated Hitler was in every aspect of his pose, how in the Munich period [1927 – 1933] he experimented ceaselessly with details of his image, his physical appearance, and especially his mustache.” Ron Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (New York: Harper Perennial, 1999), pp. 111-2.
  14. Musser, p. 48. William Paul offers a sustained reading of the difference between high art “located in the mind and spirit” and low art “located in the mouth, genitals, and anus”. William Paul, “Charles Chaplin and the Annals of Anality”, in Andrew S. Horton (Ed.), Comedy/Cinema/Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 111. Though critics frequently praise Chaplin’s sentimentality and humanity, Paul argues that they repress and contain his anality and sexuality to align him with the more “universal” concerns of high art.
  15. All first-generation reviews quoted in this paragraph are reprinted in Musser.
  16. Claims of doubling between the Tramp’s dance with the barber’s shears and Hynkel’s with the globe are not unique to my argument. Frank Scheide and Robert Payne make similar claims in their analyses of The Great Dictator.
  17. Payne, p. 244.
  18. During the Committee on Un-American Activities investigations of the 1950s, Chaplin was called to testify about his political leanings. He replied with a letter requesting a postponement: “For your convenience I will tell you what I think you want to know. I am not a Communist, neither have I ever joined any political party or organization in my life. I am what you call a ‘peacemonger.’ I hope this will not offend you.” Charles Spencer Chaplin, My Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964), p. 449. Though the subpoena was subsequently dropped, Chaplin was denied entry to the United States in 1952.
  19. Adorno, p. 180.
  20. Chaplin, p. 320.

About The Author

Jennie Lightweis-Goff is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Gender/Sexuality Studies at Tulane University, where she teaches courses in American literature and urban studies. She is the author of Blood at the Root: Lynching as American Cultural Nucleus (SUNY Press, 2011). Her scholarship has appeared in American Literature and The Journal of Popular Music Studies

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