napolini

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Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator (1940) as Adenoid Hynkel (left) and the Jewish barber in disguise (right).

The first speech at the beginning of the film is spoken in German-sounding gibberish, with random words, such as ‘sauerkraut’, thrown in for effect, while Chaplin’s animated movements resemble those of Adolf Hitler, of whom this film is an obvious spoof.

The final speech, now iconic (with nearly 15M views on one video), is given by the Jewish barber, disguised as Hynkel, after being ushered to the microphone in front of the troops of the fictional land of Tomania. Having witnessed and been victim to the cruelties shown to those in the ghetto where he lives and works, the barber, though timid at first, becomes increasingly passionate as the speech goes on, pleading for the goodwill of humanity.

Born just four days apart, the resemblance between Hitler and Chaplin’s famous moustached character has not got unnoticed since Hitler came to power, with Charlie himself commenting on such in his 1964 autobiography:

“The face was obscenely comic - a bad imitation of me, with it’s absurd moustache, unruly, stringy hair and disgusting, thin, little mouth. I could not take Hitler seriously […] The salute with the hand thrown back over the shoulder, the palm upwards, made me want to put a tray of dirty dishes on it. ‘This is a nut!’ I thought. But when Einstein and Thomas Mann were forced to leave Germany, this face of Hitler was no longer comic but sinister.“ 

Many have wondered whether the German dictator had seen this very public and obvious criticism of himself. While no official record confirms this to be true, there is a story stating that Joseph Goebbels had seized a copy from a German-occupied country and brought it to Hitler who had apparently watched it twice in a private screening. Some say that he laughed at the scenes in which the barber shaves a customer to the music of the Hungarian Dance No.5 and the competition between Hynkel and Napolini in their own elevating barber shop chairs. Other stories state that, as a great admirer of Chaplin’s work, Hitler was heartbroken by his impersonation, and cried after seeing the film. (x/x)  

Despite its success and legacy, Charlie had second thoughts about his film as the war progressed and more of the atrocities committed by the Nazis came to light, stating: “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made [it]. I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”