Friday, April 15, 2011

Charlie Chaplin And Hitler

Charlie Chaplin was not particularly diplomatic; perhaps the more fitting term
is discreet either about his views or personal life. His politics were left, and his personal life was probably best left to the imagination rather than the glare of
a society not comfortable with self indulgency. When it counted though, his courage and non-conformism put him out front of both most citizens and politicians in actively confronting Hitler and Mussolini. He understood the danger of these fascist icons in a manner way ahead of the curve, that called out for action even before we could anticipate the catastrophe and global war that would follow. He also projected the humanity of the victims when it was uncomfortable.
Chaplin's greatest perception in comprehending the threat of
Hitler and Mussolini went beyond what most gave the greatest weight, at least before the breakout of war. This was not just
about the struggle of states for territory and supremacy. 
"The Great Dictator," as a title, was not just a mere prick. It
also sought to both marginalize the Fuhrer's political legitimacy
and bring to the forefront his great imminent menace. Perhaps
Chaplin's effort at diplomatic discourse through the film was not
a success in ultimately averting the Holocaust. The professional diplomats though failed outright, both in the political error of appeasement and the lack of human consideration for the Jews, Roma and others who were already within the Nazi's death grip.
Charlie Chaplin Hitler labeled Chaplin a "Jew." Chaplin never denied it, although he was not Jewish. Chaplin was part Rom on his mother's side and was proud of it. However, Chaplin
believed that if he rejected any Jewish identity then this
could be misappropriated as another potential slur against a
Jewish people facing bigotry and increasing persecution well
beyond Nazi Germany.
Chaplin's example is a worthy one for today's political discourse, especially as it applies to assaults upon Barack Hussein Obama's Islamic background. The initial denials
that candidate Obama was a Muslim only served to
legitimize the attacks from a not so small fringe upon
Muslims and Islam as a whole. Rather than marginalize the fringe, the denials of Obama's "Muslim-ness" marginalized Muslim Americans and gave legitimacy to those seeking to segment American society along religious, ethnic or racial
lines. Admittedly, President Obama has more recently tried to correct the misimpression. However, among the haters and dividers of American society, they already are exploiting the misimpression. They are also feeling empowered to the claim that they are entitled to the brand of only real Americans.
Unfortunately the instinctive response to defend by denying Obama's Muslim-ness allowed the discourse to transpire on the home turf of the haters and dividers. As Chaplin stated, a denial "would play directly into the hands of anti-Semites." (Anti-Semitism was rationalized within many segments of US society as well during Chaplin's time).
"The film, ('The Great Dictator'), was seen as an act of courage in the political environment of the time, both for its ridicule of Nazism and for the portrayal of overt Jewish characters and the depiction of their persecution. Chaplin played both the role of (the Hitler character) and also that of a look-like Jewish barber persecuted by the Nazis. The barber physically resembles Chaplin's Tramp character, but is not considered to be the Tramp. At the conclusion, the two characters Chaplin portrayed swapped positions through a complex plot, and he dropped out of his comic character to address the audience directly in speech."
Chaplin could have played it safe and continued to milk the brand of the "Tramp:" Rather he not only took a stance, but deployed his most famous brand in service of his political engagement. Perhaps this was because Chaplin was most comfortable with himself while living among his ample contradictions. His "Tramp" was a hyperbole of his own reflection as hinted at below by Chaplin:
"On the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennet had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache, which I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born."
Chaplin was a most popular global figure for a significant slice of his creative period. His art was not just a matter of populist appeal though. In perhaps the most memorable scene, "City Lights" Chaplin paints an impressionistic masterpiece on the screen.
At the end though, Chaplin's contradictions, his left politics and his "trampy" heart, left him vulnerable as society ebbed toward conformism. He spent much of his later years in Europe, in effect barred from reentering the United States during the McCarthy era for his political views, (although his disregard for and confrontation with the establishment and conformism had started well before).
America seemed to re-embrace Chaplin after he appeared no longer the abstract threat. He had for some time shunned politics believing that clowns and comedians were "above politics." In one of the latter public appearances of his life at the Oscars in 1972, Chaplin seemed truly stunned by the welcoming reception. It was not Chaplin that had changed though, but perhaps that period reflected a new openness for America.
While the films are challenged with technological and stylistic transformation, Chaplin's art is not obsolete nor his sensitivity to dictators employing fear and bigotry. Since the demise of Hitler and Mussolini, genocide is not history. To the contrary, ethnic cleansing and despots resorting to terror and murder are as much today's challenge. Xenophobia has been on the rise within most of our societies. And there has been some of the Great Dictator's superciliousness in too many of our political leaders, east and west.