Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Great Dictator and its score

In 2009 I wrote a short blog post about Charlie Chaplin's film The Great Dictator, and titled it Chaplin Speaks as an allusion to Baba's book God Speaks. After seeing The Great Dictator Baba said in 1941:
It is the only film I would have liked to see seven times." (Lord Meher, 1986 print edition, p. 2665)
In that post I showed the famous speech from the film, where Chaplin plays a Jewish barber who by comic circumstance winds up being forced to give a speech in the guise of the terrible tyrant Hynkel (Hitler). I gave then the speech as it originally played, with its original score. Here I begin with a version that has been remixed with music by Jóhann Jóhannsson. I like the remix very much, but I'll also discuss the original score.

I don't want to dismiss the re-score at all. I personally like it better than the original. However the original, in the full context of the film, has virtues and significance worth discussing.

The original version of this scene has music by Wagner, but with a very special purpose by Chaplin. Below one can see it. It had Wagner's Lohengrin prelude rerecorded by Meredith Willson, who won an academy award for the score of the film in 1941.

What I have learned is that, though few notice it, the same Lohengrin 
prelude by Wagner is also used in an earlier scene of Hynkel with the balloon, which is the other most famous scene from the film. In that scene (shown below), the score plays longer but is interrupted by the balloon popping. It was Chaplin's own idea to use Wagner in both scenes in this way and Meredith Willson who won the academy award for the score said all the best ideas were Chaplin's.

The use of Wagner in this way has been deeply analyzed. Lutz Peter Koepnick writes in The Dark Mirror: German Cinema Between Hitler and Hollywood:
How can Wagner at once help emphasize a progressivist vision of human individualism and a fascist preview of absolute domination? How can the master's music simultaneously signify a desire for lost emotional integrity and for authoritative grandeur? Chaplin's dual use of Lohengrin points towards unsettling conjunctions of Nazi culture and Hollywood entertainment. Like Adorno, Chaplin understands Wagner as a signifier of both: the birth of fascism out of the spirit of the total work of art, and the origin of mass culture out of the spirit of the most arduous aesthetic program of the nineteenth century. Unlike Adorno [who identifies American mass culture and fascist spectacle], Chaplin wants his audience to make crucial distinctions between competing Wagnerianisms . . . Both . . . rely on the driving force of utopian desires, on . . . the promise of self-transcendence and authentic collectivity, but they channel these mythic longings in fundamentally different directions. Although [Chaplin] exposes the puzzling modernity of Nazi politics, Chaplin is unwilling to write off either Wagner or industrial culture. [Chaplin suggests] Hollywood needs Wagner as never before in order to at once condemn the use of fantasy in fascism and warrant the utopian possibilities in industrial culture.
Which ever score one prefers, many people consider Chaplin's speech in the film to be one of the best speeches ever given, even if it was fictional dialogue. The script, written by Chaplin himself, won an Academy Award for best original screenplay.

See also Hitler's Globe.

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