By David Michael Newstead.
Long before The Interview and the Sony hack, Charlie Chaplin made a satire mocking Adolf Hitler. The Great Dictator is an American film from 1940 starring an English icon and noted leftist. It’s about a Jewish barber (played by Chaplin) who accidentally switches places with a power crazed, anti-Semitic dictator (also played by Chaplin). In real life, the two men obviously looked very similar and had the same moustache style. But it’s also worth noting that Chaplin’s slapstick depiction of Hitler was only slightly more absurd than the Nazi’s actual mannerisms. In fact, the imprisoned war criminal, Albert Speer, later said he considered the film to be the most accurate depiction of Hitler’s behavior. Of course, The Great Dictator was banned in Germany at the time, but Hitler reportedly obtained a copy and watched it on several occasions. And while he never publicly commented on the movie, Adolf Hitler was not exactly known for his ability to take criticism well.
In the aftermath of the Sony hack, it’s natural to wonder what forms of expression will now be at risk from the world’s worst regimes. Today, The Interview is vulnerable to attack in a way that The Great Dictator was not. And the implications in terms of censorship, self-censorship, and fear have lasting significance for Western democracies.
But as much as things have changed since 1940, a few things are the same. Dictators are still frightening, they’re still power crazed, and more than anyone else, they deserved to be mocked.