Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Mistaken Identity


Speaking of Nazis... is there anything we can't laugh about?

I was writing, yesterday, about the movie documenting the escape of Jewish children from Nazi Germany--and not only Germany, in fact, also from other Nazi-occupied territories--via the Kindertransport. There were the familiar scenes in the documentary, with storm troopers brutally attacking Jews in city streets, painting racist epithets on the store front windows of Jewish businesses, throwing bricks through the glass, and dragging Jews from their houses for transportation to concentration camps. I wept.

Last night I watched another movie. It had scenes with Nazi storm troopers brutally attacking Jews in city streets, painting racist epithets on the store front windows of Jewish businesses, throwing bricks through the glass, and dragging Jews from their houses for transportation to concentration camps. And I was in fits of laughter.

Last night's film, of course, was The Great Dictator, the Charlie Chaplin classic from 1940...


... in which Chaplin plays the dual roles of Adenoid Hynkel, the ruthless dictator and a poor Jewish barber, a dead ringer for the "Fuehrer." It is years since I last saw the film, and I had forgotten how irresistibly funny it is. The strategy is mockery by slapstick. The brutality of the troopers who march under the banner of the Double Cross is laughable when they're presented as mindless and incompetent, easy targets for the handily wielded skillet or the well-flung pie. The target of the parody is, of course, far from funny--and is never out of sight. The film is also a devastating indictment of Hitler, his henchmen (in the movie, Field Marshall Herring and Reichsminister Garbitsch) and those who were so easily led into following their vile ideology. That it was made in 1940, before the worst of the atrocities was revealed, makes it all the more amazing.

Amazing, too, is Chaplin's performance--not only the extended tour de force parodies of the Hitler speeches, the callous ruthlessness, the laugh-in-the-aisles fits of rage. These are indeed splendid. What's striking, though--and the source, I think, of the powerful emotion his acting evokes--is his ability to use his body as a medium of expression. The famous scene, for example, where Hynkel toys with the globe balloon, bouncing it genially high into the air with a flick of the heel and catching it with arrogant grace, is nothing less than accomplished ballet; as is the street scene with the little barber where, mistakenly beaned by a piece of heavy cookware, he staggers off into an intricate, dazed little dance up and down the sidewalk and over the curb (an inspiration, I wonder, for the later Gene Kelly scene in "Singing in the Rain"?) These scenes are justly praised, but almost every frame of the film seems choreographed with equal poise and intention. It's beautiful to watch.

There is, too, a good deal of Chaplin sentiment in the movie. There is the starry-eyed, impossible love interest--and a hilarious scene where the besotted barber, with his enamorata, Hannah, in his chair, forgets himself and starts to soap her chin ready for the shave. And, at the end, with Hynkel sent off mistakenly to the camps by his own storm troopers, the little barber is mistaken for him and escorted to the podium at a vast Nueremberg-style rally; finding courage and inspiration in his heart, he surprises the world with a speech that begs for peace and brotherhood, gentleness and love among people of all races...

The movie ends on this note, with Hannah in a bucolic setting, listening to the sound of her little barber's voice on the radio, her eyes aglow with love and adulation.

Okay, it would have been better if history had come up with the same conclusion. It didn't. Tragically. But it was still good to laugh. And it felt strange to be laughing about the same things I had wept about the night before! What a curious bundle of contradictions we human beings are...

3 comments:

mandt said...

Another extraordinary story is that of Theresienstadt. PBS has done an excellent documentary on it that will break your heart. No matter what we must never forget, or forgive the evil of that time. The stories have to endure and laughter in the face of such evil is the key. peace, m

mandt said...

PS. Another excellent review of 'The King's Speech' here: http://allenlrolandsweblog.blogspot.com/

PeterAtLarge said...

MandT, yes, we did see that. Ellie and I were in Thersienstadt a while ago--an experience not soon to be forgotten. Thanks for the review referral.