Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler were born only a few days apart (respectively 16th and 20th of April 1889) into poverty (Chaplin's being more severe), but went on to be perhaps the two famous men in the world at around the time of this film. They had similar height and weight and the same moustache. Cartoonists in the 1930s had had much fun with this.
Chaplin spent two years preparing this film. When he started, it was 1938 and Britain still had an appeasement policy with Nazi Germany. When it was released in 1940, America was still at peace with Hitler. It also rode a coach and horses through the Hays Code, which said that other countries' public figures must be portrayed "fairly". Today it's the most obvious of truisms that Hitler was an evil, pathetic bastard and you'd have to be as mad as he was to call this film controversial, but it took balls to start making it back in the pre-war era. Many people objected, especially to the speech at the end. It got banned in neutral countries like Ireland, as well as in Axis ones like Italy and Spain. Chaplin didn't care, though. He could afford to finance the film all by himself and wrote later that "I was determined to go ahead, for Hitler must be laughed at."
As it happens, Hitler thought Chaplin was a brilliant actor, although he mistakenly assumed he was Jewish. Hitler had this film banned, of course, but he himself watched it twice. (Chaplin said, "I'd give anything to know what he thought of it.") Meanwhile Chaplin had laughed his head off at The Triumph of the Will, borrowed from it for this film and watched it repeatedly to study Hitler's mannerisms.
It's a pivotal film and a landmark of cinema. Chaplin vs. Hitler. Is it any good?
Firstly, the plot. Again Chaplin's not writing according to any kind of standard dramatic structure. He's interweaving two stories, each about a different Chaplin character... but neither is what you'd call a protagonist. The Jewish Barber (a harmless little fellow who's not the Tramp but overlaps with him) is a nice chap trying to survive. He just reacts to stuff. Meanwhile Adenoid Hynkel, the Jew-hating warmongering dictator of Tomania, is simply being a twat. He's very busy doing nothing of importance. He sits in his office, struts around, shouts at people and makes plans for invading peaceful countries.
Neither is the hero of his own story. Both are a bit silly. However the silliness of Hynkel has people killed or sent to concentration camps while their homes get burned down. This isn't always a comedy. It's having a good stab at showing what it must be like to be a Jew under the Nazi regime, trying to read meaning into the contradictory orders from on high. Stormtroopers push you around like childhood bullies... until they start throwing nooses over lampposts. There are killings. We even briefly go inside a concentration camp, although it's hardly Schindler's List since no one in 1939 knew how bad things were going to get. The emotion here is genuine, paradoxically helped by being interspersed with comedy routines.
The elephant in the room is of course Chaplin's big speech to camera at the end. What's odd about it is that to deliver it, he drops out of character. He'd set up a hilarious set-piece for the Jewish Barber, but we don't get it. Chaplin plays three people in this film: the Jewish Barber, Adenoid Hynkel and himself. That famous speech isn't primarily being delivered to the fictional victims of Hynkel, but instead by Chaplin himself to the millions of real-life victims of Hitler. This is... brave. Many people (including some highly esteemed critics even today) can't get past it. Me, I admire it and I find it both important and powerful, although it requires a modern audience to bear in mind the historical context and stop treating the fiction as fiction. It's making art into something more and there was no one else on the planet who could have done it.
Is it funny? Yes, between the serious bits. Chaplin was putting his reputation on the line by doing a Nazi comedy. Get the tone wrong and he'd never be able to show his face again. Comedy Germans are a standard comedy trope today (e.g. 'Allo 'Allo), but they certainly weren't then. However far from being intimidated, Chaplin's pushing the boat out with surreal scenes like the sentient inanimate objects (the unexploded shell, the microphones), the musical shaving (with cut-throat razors) and Hynkel's balloon dance. That blew my mind. Where did that come from? "Whimsy" doesn't begin to explain it.
What's amazing is how many different levels Chaplin's hitting. We have:
1. Blackadder-like gags with the bulletproof suit and the parachute.
2. The blackly hilarious coin scene, in which the gag is that even nice people are weaselly cowards.
3. Tramp-like business with the Jewish Tailor running away from policemen, except that these are Nazi stormtroopers.
4. Mr Ethnic Stereotype, childish one-upmanship and idiots eating too much mustard.
5. Pseudo-German gobbledigook that includes Yiddish.
It doesn't matter if you find some of the jokes less funny than others, because all this comic invention surely guarantees that you'll laugh at something. Besides, this would still be an important and worthwhile film even if you didn't laugh at all.
Chaplin's evocation of both the Nazis and the Jewish ghetto is surprisingly good. Hitler is at once a daft childish pisstake and an accurate portrayal. As they say, it's funny because it's true. It feels as if it's really captured something important about the man and about fascist dictators in general, as well as being a detailed Hitler impersonation while at the same time a broad Charlie Chaplin comedy performance.
It's a shame to have only two more of Hitler's freakshow inner circle of Nazis, but I loved both Billy Gilbert as Herring (i.e. Hermann Goring) and Henry Daniell as Garbitsch (i.e. Goebells). Daniell's always delicious in anything and here he's perfect casting. He's sinister, e.g. when telling Gilbert to get out. That bit was like The Sopranos. I really liked the interplay of the Nazis. As for the good guys, Paulette Goddard is less eye-catching than she was in Modern Times
, but there she was playing a live wire and here she's got a bit of that, but she's essentially a victim. Reginald Gardiner's perfect too.
It's a huge film, full of equally huge contradictions and nominated for five Oscars (Best Leading Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Score, Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay). It's serious and frivolous. It's funny in enough different ways to carry three or four films from a less inventive comedian, but at the same time to ask whether it's funny feels reductive. It's more than that. It's also a polemic, a scream at Hitler and everything he did and believed in. It's giving voice to his victims. Its greatest miracle, I think, is to pull all its disparate ingredients into a single film without losing control of its tone. It should have probably been a train wreck. The fact that Chaplin made it work is probably a mark of genius.