As Nazi Germany invaded European countries and threatened the Jewish communities who lived there, film star Charlie Chaplin wrote and directed The Great Dictator outside of the Hollywood studio system. Despite industry opposition to a film poking fun at Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, he made the film and funded it himself because he believed “Hitler must be laughed at.” But, The Great Dictator is not just a Hitler story. For American movie audiences in the 1940s, this comedy also provided a gut-wrenching look at Jewish life in Nazi Germany.
Chaplin was one of the best-known actors in the world before World War II. He was the master of physical comedy and won adoration with his endearingly clumsy “Little Tramp” persona in silent movies like Modern Times and The Kid. Audiences looked to Chaplin for lighthearted comic relief, and he always delivered. They would have expected the same from his first picture with sound — but instead audiences got a darkly satirical takedown of the Nazi regime.
The plot of The Great Dictator is straightforward. The protagonist, an iteration of the “Little Tramp,” is a nameless Jewish barber in the country of Tomania. He fights in World War I, but sustains a head injury and spends the next 20 years in a veteran’s hospital with amnesia. When he finally returns to his beloved barber shop, he discovers his neighborhood is now a Jewish ghetto.
While he was away, Tomania had fallen under the control of the Double Cross party, led by a raving, hate-driven dictator named Adenoid Hynkel — also played by Chaplin. Anti-Jewish violence terrorizes the ghetto, the ghetto inhabitants resist, there are consequences, and eventually after a series of capers, the barber is mistaken for Hynkel.
Chaplin spends most of the movie contrasting the heightened, screaming absurdity of “the people of the palace” with the dignity and desperation of “the people of the ghetto.” By molding his beloved on-screen persona into the Jewish protagonist, Chaplin urges his audience to sympathize with Europe’s Jews.
At the same time, Chaplin, through his portrayal of Hynkel, mocks the Nazi regime and creates a jarring dissonance that would have shocked audiences, who watched the world’s favorite comedian spew antisemitic invective in pseudo-German with such gusto that the microphones on his podium bend away from him. Chaplin forces his audience to think of Hitler as both a monster and a human being, just like he used the “Little Tramp” to make them see Jews as human beings. By humanizing both the Jews and the Nazis, Chaplin places them on equal ground — leaving no room to excuse Germany’s persecution of Jews.
The film delivers an unflinching view of the realities of antisemitic persecution in Nazi Germany, made palatable through Chaplin’s physical comedy. When the barber first returns to his shop, a storm trooper arrives to paint “JEW” on his windows, just like every other storefront on the street. Indignant, the barber confronts the storm trooper and dumps the paint can on his head. A slapstick comedy scene follows — until the storm troopers attempt to lynch the barber. He only survives because the storm trooper captain, a man he saved during the war, arrives and calls off the mob.
“Huh,” the captain says to the barber. “I always took you for an Aryan.”
Both the barber and the storm trooper captain later end up in a concentration camp, where they’re forced to do an exaggerated Nazi goose-step march while wearing pajama-style uniforms. Chaplin later wrote in his memoirs, “If I had known what was happening in the concentration camps, I would never have made the movie.” As it stands, the scene proves that Chaplin knew some of the details of the camps, down to what the prisoners wore.
Finally, in the last act of the film, Tomania invades the neighboring country of Osterlich, representing the Nazi annexation of Austria. Once again, Chaplin accurately shows Nazi anti-Jewish violence. The audience sees scenes of terror as storm troopers raid Jewish houses, throwing people from their homes and ransacking their belongings. A young man attacks a storm trooper who was beating his father, and the storm trooper shoots him in the chest. The invaders even target the barber’s Jewish love interest, who fled to Osterlich after the barber was sent to the concentration camp.
While it would have been easy for Chaplin to gloss over the Jewish experience here and focus on the military or political implications of the invasion — there is room in the plot to do so — he makes a point of highlighting anti-Jewish violence. This part of the movie is not funny. In fact, aside from a brief physical comedy scene involving a folding chair, the rest of the film is completely serious.
In the last moments of The Great Dictator, after making his audience acutely, painfully aware of the threat Nazism posed to Europe’s Jews, Chaplin has the barber — who is dressed and posing as Hynkel — deliver a speech directly to the camera. At the podium, the barber pleads for a return to democracy, and urges “you, the people” to make life “free and beautiful.”
“We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We 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’s room for everyone and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone,” the barber says from Hynkel’s stage above the crowd. By the end of his emotional speech, he is nearly screaming with passion as he urges the soldiers to lay down their arms and instead “fight for a world of reason.”
The Great Dictator ends the same way it begins: Charlie Chaplin at the podium, dressed like Hitler, surrounded by fascist functionaries. But in this final scene, the Jewish barber has risen to become the dictator’s equal. Instead of giving in to the call of power, he urges his audiences — on screen and in the theater — to remember their humanity. That poignant focus on the Jewish experience makes The Great Dictator a radical standout in World War II cinema.
Abigail Hartley is a social media producer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.