One of the things I love most about films is that they help us interpret and reckon with the past, especially the darkest parts of history that are often painful to think about.
There have been a great many films that dig deep into humanity’s history and present haunting and eye-opening pieces that help us understand these horrors, how we can learn from them, and hopefully ensure that history does not in fact repeat itself.
Making and watching these films is incredibly important to our education as a human race, and our reconciliation with the past. But it is hard to consistently put ourselves through that, emotionally speaking. So, what a few brave (albeit risk-taking) filmmakers have done over the years, is to take these horrific moments in history and make fun of them.
It’s curious – taking Hitler, one of the most notorious and brutal dictators who has ever lived – and making a caricature of him. But that is precisely what comic legend Charlie Chaplin did.
“The Great Dictator” was released in 1940, during Hitler’s reign over Germany, and is considered one of the greatest comedies of all time. The film follows Adenoid Hynkel, a cruel and paranoid dictator, and a Jewish barber, both played by Chaplin. The two men – one being the persecutor and the other the persecuted – are mistaken for one another, and the hilarity ensues. But making a mockery of Hitler is just the start for Chaplin – Italy’s Mussolini becomes the ridiculous Napolini, Reich Minister of Propaganda of Germany Paul Goebbels becomes Garbitsch, and what is supposed to be German sounds more like gibberish.
While perhaps ignoring some of the harsher realities of Nazism, Chaplin’s film was one of the first to tackle antisemitism in any capacity and had an enormous impact on Hitler’s reputation.
One of the more memorable scenes in the film involves Chaplin’s dictator Hynkel dancing with a balloon-like globe, which floats gently through the air as Hynkel delicately spins and tosses it around to classical accompaniment. Here is a man with wild ambitions of world domination, and Chaplin, a genius of physical comedy, takes this haunting idea and turns it into something hilarious.
Decades later, filmmakers are still adopting this naive but comic perspective to make light of the backwardness of Nazism. I point now to writer-director-actor extraordinaire Taika Waititi and “Jojo Rabbit.” In this bizarre and artsy satire, Waititi portrays Hitler, the imaginary friend of 10-year old Jojo, a young German boy and Hitler youth member. Affectionately referred to as Adolf, Waititi’s Hitler is campy and absurd, with a thick accent (and lisp) and outrageously blue contacts which Waititi wears to appear more…German? The fact that Waititi himself is an indigenous, Jewish, person of color only adds to the folly, but in the best way possible.
This satirical take on the past is certainly up for debate, as it can underplay the atrocities done by Hitler to the Jewish people, but only through bold art can we transform a terrible historical truth into something accessible, and I think Chaplin and Waititi’s work is a testament to that.