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Criterion releases THE GREAT DICTATOR

In 1940 the Nazi’s established four new concentration camps at Neuegamme, Gross-Rosen, Natzweiler and Auschwitz; later that year Charlie Chaplin released THE GREAT DICTATOR. As the U.S. was not yet at war, Hollywood was actually worried about offending certain European dictators. Indeed, the film was immediately banned in occupied Europe. But Chaplin had other worries, namely, was this a time to be funny about dictators? How do you make jokes about such a touchy and personal subject without seeming crass or insensitive?

Chaplin actually gave his own response to this, one of the film’s many criticisms, in a piece called “Mr. Chaplin Answers His Critics” that was originally published in The New York Times and has been reprinted in the booklet accompanying Criterion’s release of the film. “As to Hitler being funny,” Chaplin said, “I can only say that if we can’t sometimes laugh at Hitler then we are further gone than we think…Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease of pain. It is healthy, the healthiest thing in the world.”

Chaplin pulls it off, of course, and not just because he’s an adept physical comic with the uncanny ability to imbue his characters with both lunacy and grace (just watch his famous semi-ballet dance with the balloon-globe), but Chaplin succeeds because he doesn’t take the easy route of reducing Hitler and his cronies to clownish, stammering, heil-ing buffoons (for a comparison, look at Tarantino’s pandering, red-faced, cartoonish Hitler in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS). Chaplin’s “Nazi’s are not finally reduced to comic figures; they are promoted into representatives of a far wider human folly.”

The film’s finely executed satire makes this commentary abundantly clear. So clear, in fact, that we don’t necessarily need “the famously impassioned speech” that Chaplin concludes with. The film really does speak for itself, but Chaplin couldn’t resist adding his own very fervent two cents. He speaks here not as the barber or as Hynkel, “but as the actor-director Charles Chaplin, miraculously smuggled into his own film.” As a general rule, one would do well to avoid heavy-handed authorial messages. They’re overbearing, preachy, even condescending – does the director not trust us to ‘get’ the message? To this Chaplin’s has a ready defense. “May I not be excused for ending my comedy on a note that reflects, honestly and realistically, the world in which we live, and may I not be excused in pleading for a better world?” Okay, Charlie, you’re excused.

Criterion’s  DVD and Blu-Ray release is available May 24, 2011 and includes, among other excellent features, an amazingly crisp and clean hi-def digital restoration.