Even Though It’s Breaking: On Barbarism and Barbers

The Great Dictator (1940)

The Great Dictator | United Artists

United Artists

There is a man and there is a moustache. The moustache is…familiar. Is it painted on? It looks painted on. Maybe the more important hair note is on the head, the way it’s beginning to shock white. The man isn’t young anymore. 

He looks down; also out, a little. Like, emotionally, yeah, but physically too: he’s almost looking in two directions. This happens sometimes in still-frames poached from a film’s motion—the eyes are stuck in motion. This happens in lots of pictures of me. It makes me self-conscious, my froggy muppet eyes. This man’s eyes are looking, moving. Moving from? Moving to? 

His shirt is rumpled but the tie is tight. It’s a uniform, maybe. It’s got those things on the shoulders. Epaulets? The place you put epaulets? Epaulet shelves?  

The background is blurry, but there’s a dome, maybe some columns. Open space and sky. But again, it’s blurry. It’s either very cloudy or maybe smoky actually. Or it’s absolutely clear and open. Definitely. One of those. (There are no colors in a black-and-white frame. Or there’s only gradations, the varying greys that sneak away from the color of reality through a lens.)

Description is not reality. I am beginning to suspect it is a deceptive process.

Description is useful, for sure: it can help to establish context and it can sometimes translate a complicated intention into something more manageable. A description provides an alternative pathway to understanding. But the process of description contributes to the way language feels unable to render so many of the sublime occasions of the world around us. It is a reduction, a cooking-off of.

If this cooking is necessary, if it leads to nutrition and savoring, it still frustrates me sometimes. In a description of the ocean (how do you do the deep and the color and moving?) or a sandhill crane taking flight (how do you count high enough in feathers without ceasing in wonder?) or the brushing of fingertips with a new crush (how do you even?) there is the thing of the world and the thing that is lost in the rendering. 

Let’s cheat out written English, briefly. Let’s set aside—for the splitting second of a single cinematic frame—the symbology of men and moustaches and the impossibility of describing the world as is. Let’s instead see a kind of specific silence that hangs in a man’s brow:

This is a still from Charles Chaplin’s 1940 film, The Great Dictator. It occurs at approximately the 1:59:32 mark. If our home releases and prints are different, the most important context for this essay is that we discuss the split second before Charles Chaplin speaks the film’s final speech. 

How could I describe The Great Dictator? If you’ve seen the movie, any description I offer is like a photocopy of cheeky lightning. If you haven’t, I (and you) might be better off with “you have a gift for future you sometime!” or “I can lend the DVD if you still like, do that!”

Description though, is a way to establish context. Context, I think, is a way to establish nuance. 

The film opens on combat footage, soldiers seesawing in the trenches, struggling to survive against an unknown enemy. Among them is a Jewish barber, played by Chaplin. The men argue with a cannon, with grenades. The barber saves a pilot who’s crash-landed. They fly away. They land. The war ends. Years pass. The film introduces its second lead, Adenoid Hynkel, the titular dictator who’s also played by Chaplin—same moustache, different costume. We find out the barber has suffered acute memory loss as a result of his time in war. We witness him return to the ghettoized neighborhood in this fictional country of Tomania, surprised to find it overrun with Hynkel’s stormtroopers who are outright terrorizing the Jewish population. 

Like a set of Shakespeare’s twins, as soon as we see the twin moustaches, we’re waiting for the bait and switch, the mix-up of identities. It happens, finally, in the film’s last minutes. The barber—while attempting to escape from a labor camp in borrowed clothes—finds himself taken to be the dictator, who is conveniently indisposed as the result of some slapstick. The barber is prompted by the entirety of the Tomanian military brass to address the assembled armed forces on the occasion of invading the neighboring country of Osterlich. The barber stands at the microphone, looking down and looking out. And that’s 1:59:32.

To be bold, to dare to be stupid: this single frame in The Great Dictator is the most essential frame occurring in Charles Chaplin’s filmography. It is the most elegant and achy navigation out of comedy, straight through tragedy, and into something like the human struggle ever captured by camera. It is something like the writing of resolution. 

I fan myself here, I crave more context: In 1938, Chaplin writes a screenplay called The Dictator. He shoots the film in 1939. Retitled as The Great Dictator, the film makes its New York debut in October of 1940. It premieres in London in December of 1940 amidst heavy air raids by German forces. It is banned in occupied Europe and most of Latin America.

The reason people in 1940 go to see The Great Dictator (the ones who can, the ones who are free to) is not for any of the plot machinations I described above. The thing that’s hard to describe about The Great Dictator is the ineffable movement of Chaplin’s slapsticks, the way his upper lip can wiggle until your belly shakes a laugh up from under you. The thing about writing about what’s funny, why funny, is it’s so easy to lose that in the describing. People in 1940 go to see the new Chaplin film in order to laugh. They want to smile. They go to the movies. I empathize with them.

But here at 1:59:32 there’s no laughing. There’s silence and a man looking down and out and tired. 

There are two historical factors that impact how we read this frame and what it precedes. One is a matter of frame, and the other is history. 

The first, the form: The Great Dictator was Charles Chaplin’s first sound film. 

That isn’t true, not all the way. Chaplin opted to continue working in silence Cinema for 1931’s City Lights despite that year’s filmic ecosystem seeing sophisticated sound films like LeRoy’s Little Caesar, Wellman’s The Public Enemy, and Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant. While City Lights was released with a recorded score and synchronized sound effects, it lacked spoken dialogue and used intertitles, all the formal markers of silent cinema. And though 1936’s Modern Times features a musical number performed by Chaplin’s Little Tramp (and so, marks the first time Chaplin’s own voice was captured and presented on screen), the film is otherwise “silent,” mostly a bright and brilliant anachronism. Like City Lights, it has the sound effects and recorded score (and introduces the Chaplin-penned theme that would go on to become the standard “Smile”), but any relaying of the human voice is done with intertitles.

The apprehension, I think, has more to do with care than luddism. In his autobiography, Chaplin recalls the character as “A tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure.” Those words are good, and they do good work. They’re still not what you see on screen. The Little Tramp—the plinky moustache, the too-big shoes, the bumble gait—is a montage of visual cues not necessarily translatable to spoken word. It’s in the huddling all-together of those distinct elements that we hear a resounding all-ness—an all-ness that makes us emit “laugh,” the most precious of universal grammars.

The silence is a practical concern too: what would American audiences do with Chaplin’s recognizably English accent? It was a common anxiety as cinema navigated the new landscape; for every Greta Garbo (whose career was not only unhindered but buoyed by the introduction of voice) there was a Vilma Bánky (whose screen persona of “All-American Girl” was wrecked by her thick, Hungarian accent). Greta was allowed to be foreign, was fetishized as such. Vilma was discarded. America imposes itself in the noise. 

When I watch the image of the barber struggling in silence at 1:59:32 in The Great Dictator, I think about all the other times I’ve seen this face in silence. Why do I expect the silence to break?

“Sound film” wasn’t self-evident. Or: silent movies weren’t “silent,” they were just movies. And if the root of Edison’s Kinetoscope is in capturing and showing reality, the capacity for the camera to show irreality and imagine dream space is taken up with aplomb and undiscarded. It only takes 29 years to slingshot from the five seconds of Fred Ott’s Sneeze in 1894 to Dziga Vertov’s Kino Eye Manifesto in 1923, where the Soviet director and theorist declared—on behalf of the movie camera—what until now was impossible to describe: “I am the machine that reveals the world to you as only the machine can see it. I am now free of human immobility. I am in perpetual motion. I approach things, I move away from them. I slip under them, into them.”

In between those poles is Keystone’s 1914 silent short, Kid Auto Races at Venice, notable for being the first time Chaplin’s Little Tramp was featured on celluloid but also for the wild and weird ways the Tramp shatters the fourth wall. There he is, oblivious that he’s standing in front of the on-screen cameraman, impeding the capturing of reality, ruining the movie. 

Silent film captures the inaccessible. If most of our bodies experience everyday life as a colors-image-sound hybrid of senses, it’s in the ways silent film breaks with reality’s gaze that cinema becomes the language of dream. Its sliding greys and phantomatic shadows weren’t marking time until technological renovation could allow for coloration—they were a matter of form, part of the ghost. So too, bodies on film weren’t silence in absence of speaking, but found, in silence, a way to speak differently. Chaplin knew this, never forgot this, held it in the pursing of lips at 1:59:32.

In his 1929 treatise “The Art of Sound,” filmmaker and Chaplin contemporary René Clair speaks to the anxiety of coherence: “We must draw a distinction here between those sound effects which are amusing only by virtue of their novelty (which soon wears off), and those that help one to understand the action, and which excite emotions which could not have been roused by the sight of the pictures alone.” Clair and Chaplin are of a kind, of a mold. Their silences seem extra human; to watch Clair’s 1931 À nous la liberté is to see the Frenchman enunciate the same anxieties (the cheapening of humanity under industrialization, the commodifying of personal time into capital) Chaplin would express five years later in Modern Times.  

Clair and Chaplin lived close enough to society’s mass industrialization to know that progress was not always self-evident, that ever-continuing mechanization was not always liberating. Film was (is, remains) an offer to humans to addedumize humanity. The kino eye is moving because it sees what we are and imagines what we can be. But this was not the context of sound cinema, not the reason for the technological jump. It was, like so much of cinema’s history, a shiny monster of the week, a new toy to sell to audiences. It threatened the space of cinema and dreams, Clair thought: “The visual world at the birth of the cinema seemed to hold immeasurably richer promise…However if imitation of real noises seems limited and disappointing, it is possible that an interpretation of noises may have more of a future in it.”

Clair discarded sound as a description of reality, wanted tensions between what the eye sees and what the ear hears, sensory crunches that produce new meaning in the world. This is what he means, I think, by interpretation. When I write “description is not reality” and “I am beginning to think it is a deceptive process,” well, duh, Frank. Description is deception on the highway to interpretation, a wiggling of reality into a new shape. It’s a beautiful deception, to find a new word or way.

All these formal markers of silent cinema, evident now only in retrospect, feel like the utterance of the indescribable thing. It’s precisely the way these markers and these films problematize the trouble with reality that they convince us to remain in it, changed a little. I think it’s something like the work of poetry.

This maybe leads us to that second factor impacting how we view 1:59:32 in The Great Dictator: history. Between the 1939 when Chaplin shot the film and the 1940 it was released into, the feel of the world had shifted. It had become harder to laugh.

While Chaplin was filming a movie satirizing him, Adolf Hitler had partnered with Mussolini to form the Axis and signed a nonaggression pact with Stalin. He had invaded Poland and Denmark and Holland and Belgium. Paris had been occupied. The first prisoners were taken to Auschwitz in May of 1940. It is an exercise in squirm to watch Chaplin’s barber break rocks in the film’s labor camp and stage a slapstick breakout while remembering what reality was doing when the director filmed the scenes. 

Years later, Chaplin claimed that he wouldn’t have made The Great Dictator if he had known the full extent of these camps, of Hitler’s actions—of the events taking place in the years he spent writing jokes about the man. In 1938, as Chaplin was writing the screenplay, maybe Hitler seemed like a dangerous despot worthy of fear and scorn, but not necessarily different from the myriad other authoritarians that had surfaced in our collective history. By the time Chaplin released his next film, 1947’s Monsieur Verdoux, Hitler had become a stand-in for the unutterable, the indescribable. The Holocaust isn’t about the extent to which bad humans succeeded, but the way in which so many humans who weren’t dictators were complicit in their actions. It’s the complete and total breakdown in the contract of humanity.

Sometimes I imagine Charles Chaplin sitting with a print of The Great Dictator in his London villa, years after, feeling a little sick about it. How could he have known? Maybe he could have known better. Maybe he knew the best he could and went from there. I think about him coming on Adorno’s “Culture Critique and Society,” reading “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” nodding.

When I bring this pebble to some poet friends they wrinkle their face at me. Here is my pitch, mid-essay: get yourself some poet friends. They have found a way to move in the world in words—I think it is nuance. They remind me the history of people misquoting and mis-contextualizing Adorno, how it’s usually misremembered as “To write poetry after Auschwitz is impossible,” how this kind of logic tips into the fascistic, how it disregards the labor of Celan and Sachs and so many others who continued to make and create in spite of in spite of. They remind me that Adorno himself redacted the thing he never even wrote in his 1966 work, Negative Dialectics: “Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.”

I think art that describes reality is only so good. I think the bulk of The Great Dictator is a description of fascism—the way it thrives on fear and absorbs people into its logic, how the dictator is actually more looney than the comedic hero, how this makes him dangerous. It’s a joke, to be sure, and it means to belittle, but it speaks in description. I think the frame in question, the 1:59:32 mark of a man making a choice, is an interpretation of that reality, a poem of mitigating gesture and silence. And everything after?

Many words ago, when I could still think straight, I asserted that this single frame in discussion was the most vital frame in Charles Chaplin’s filmography. The value of that filmography, to this point in history, is its focus on the literal and lateral movement of bodies: in love (City Lights) and lost (The Gold Rush), through community (The Kid) and hope (Modern Times). The thing about The Great Dictator, about this specific moment at 1:59:32, is that everything that comes after it totally, completely, and irrevocably ruins the film.

I’m so, so happy he ruins the film.

This is not about the single frame (instead, it’s a kind of dirty bait-and-switch) but maybe it means something, maybe it speaks to what’s been broken: during a midfilm sequence, Hynkel dictates a letter to his secretary. Speaking a rapid-fire gibberish-German of grunts and coughs and snorts of “schnitzel” and oinks of “sauerkraut” (and “Juden,” remember the stakes), Hynkel launches into a lengthy diatribe. He expounds for at least 30 seconds. He finishes. We hear (offscreen) the clacking of five curt keys on the typewriter. Hynkel is—understandably—surprised. He then adds two short words. And the off-screen sounds a typewriter play for 30 seconds. It’s a good joke. 

Dictation is an act of translation between forms. Sometimes it moves from speech to text, sometimes from silence to sound. In the translation, a new context is created. With a new context, new content is possible. If language is always an exercise in loss, poetry is the act of recovery. If the first hour and 59 minutes or so of The Great Dictator are an attempt at belittling a dictator, and our frame in question is a consideration, a choice, the ruining is what happens when a film breaks with what is to speak to what might be.

There were other options, maybe, other endings. The stakes are at their highest—the barber might be discovered by an army of fascists, might be sent back to the labor camp. He might die there. This would be tragic, or maybe it would be treacly. The barber might stage an impossible rescue, might fend off a flow-blown invasion, reunite with Paulette Goddard, might sail into the sunset just like a shade of him did in Modern Times.

He does neither. He looks down, also out a little. In the space of silence, he disappears entirely. And Chaplin—the author, actor, star, producers, computer, human—interjects himself. He changes the stakes of the imaginary object. He speaks candidly and honestly to us. Everything that precedes this oration at the end is a description of fascist acts. The emergence of the author from behind the artifact is the model by which fascism is renewable denied. Everything after 1:59:32 is an interpretation of how we move and sound in the world. No part of that motion makes room for the oppression of human beings. No part of that motion makes room for the reconciliation of oppression. This is the business of being a human, I think: this is what speaking means.

“It was a difficult thing to do,” Chaplin wrote of the ending in The New York Times in October of 1940. “It would have been much easier to have the barber and Hannah disappear over the horizon, off to the promised land against the glowing sunset. But there is no promised land for the oppressed people of the world. There is no place over the horizon to which they can go to sanctuary. They must stand, and we must stand.”

I don’t want to describe what Charles Chaplin says after 1:59:32. I promised myself that I would treat those words as something untranslatable, not out of worship of them but to keep them sharp. The thing in it is in it, not about it. But I do think it’s telling, what the very first words Chaplin (not the barber, not Hynkel) speaks as we move into 1:59:33: “I’m sorry.” It’s an unhelpful phrase, maybe—loaded and cheap and unspecific. It’s the thing we say when we break a promise with someone. It’s the thing we say at funerals, when we can’t say the unutterable but don’t want to say nothing.

I’m sorry. All we can do is make art, make laughs, break, and speak. This is all we can do and thank goodness.

I don’t think silence is self-evident. I think it occurs in the absence of action. Or: speaking is a choice but so is not. There always exists the choice to say nothing. Let us speak to silence. Let us say that sound is not-evident, that it is nothing more than the proof of being, of asserting aliveness.