Charlie Chaplin shot his movie in 1940, well before the US was at war with Germany. In this time period it was not quite common in the US to make fun of Hitler, but not because it would have increased tension, but because Hollywood did not want to give up on their Italian and the German market. Therefore, making this movie – which was also Chaplin’s first sound film – in itself counted as rebellion.
The play is surprisingly faithful to the film – the story itself was not modified at all, however, the linguistic humor was occasionally altered, updated. Originally both protagonists were portrayed by Chaplin: one being Adenoid Hynkel, the maniac dictator of Tomainia, bent on world domination, and another a Jewish barber, returning to the ghetto after being hospitalized for a long period of time. At the end of the film the two get mixed up as a result of their similarity. Chaplin’s roles are taken on by Attila Vidnyánszky Jr., who, by wearing white paint on his face along with a fake mustache, bears a resemblance to the famous actor’s looks, and even performs accordingly.
The play starts off with a scene from a World War I battlefield. The stage is dominated by dramatic chaos, anarchy and extreme absurdity. It holds through for the rest of the play as well, that people who are fond of English humor and understand gallows humor are the ones that will enjoy it the most. It calls for a certain state of mind and attitude not to perceive it the wrong way that the holocaust becomes the punch line. All this, of course, done in a way that does not question either the fact that it happened or the horror of it all, instead, it provides a distorted reflection on it: who could even have thought that it was a good idea?
On the one hand, there are some things that are so incomprehensible, or frightening, that the only way we can try to handle them is through humor – this is why, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Professor Lupin tells the kids that when they see a Boggart that approaches them taking on the form of their greatest fear, they have to imagine the creature taking an extremely funny shape and laugh at it in order to defeat it. On the other hand, the best way to make someone repulsive is to make them ridiculous. Wicked people can still be empathized with – let’s take Draco Malfoy (yet another Harry Potter example): even though he’s a typical villain character, he’s still some readers’ favorite. At the same time, we cannot sympathize with a ludicrous, petty person. In the play every aspect of Hitler’s personality is made into a caricature this way: the way he talks, his Nazi narcissism, and the German language itself.
This comedy is a unique addition to the Vígszínház’s repertoire, which, contrary to what its name suggests (the adjective “víg” means cheerful in Hungarian), usually lines up more thought-provoking plays. The play’s uniqueness also comes from the fact that there’s not that much emphasis put on the scenery and the costumes. This, however, does not go for the acrobatic moves – since they did not change anything in the original chain of events, the scene in which the barber and one of his comrades are fleeing from their enemies in an upside-down flying plane is also played out on stage. Meanwhile, his partner is so plagued by homesickness that he recites a nice little spring poem.
Their plane crashes, the barber undergoes a long-time hospital treatment, and after being released, he returns to his barbershop, suffering from amnesia. (What I’ve missed from this scene were the twelve cats in the film, fleeing in panic from the abandoned room – it would have been very interesting to collect them from the auditorium.) He has no knowledge of the events that happened in the world after World War I, including that the anti-Semitic party took power in Tomainia. So when he meets a couple of Nazi troops, he does not understand what they want from him – first, he looks at them with naïve confusion, which confuses the troops themselves as well, then he’s honestly outraged by the fact that the troops damaged his private property.
One of the most powerful scenes in the movie is this – the momentary discomfort of the Nazi troops that the barber causes with his puzzlement. It can easily happen in the everyday life as well, in even less tense situations, that what we do seems logical and right at a given moment, but a random outsider appearing out of nowhere can pose a question that even we can’t think of asking from ourselves: what on earth is going on here? And for what reason?
There’s a very similar scene in The Society on Netflix – a team sent to scout around returns home and find themselves in the middle of a coup d’état. When one of the returnees, in surprise, asks what happened, and why the original leader is in handcuffs, the people holding him captive seem to quiver for a moment, as if they almost can’t stay in character.
This also proves that you can only cook a frog, if you put it in a pot of nice, lukewarm water and then gradually heat the water up – if you put it into a pot of boiling water, it jumps right out. A situation like this serves as if it were a sort of ascension from the warm water to the air – the difference becomes visible between what was there in the beginning of the heating process and what it actually resulted in.
The climax of both the movie and the play is the speech the barber gives posing as Hynkel. He starts by stating that he does not want to reign over anyone, he’d rather help others – he’s encouraging everyone to be more humane throughout the whole speech. He delivers the speech, however, using the same rhetorical devices Hitler did – he starts quietly, almost melancholically, then his voice rises slowly, in crescendo, and finally he’s yelling and seems to be moved by his own speech.
There is an edited version of this scene from the movie on youtube that has been complemented by appropriate music to make it more effective. This video is also usually included in some charts listing motivational speeches and music that people can listen to while they are, for example, doing cardio. But no matter how beautiful things it may say, it does so appealing to our emotions, therefore it is pure manipulation. Even if its purpose is to fight for the greater good, it does pose the question: does the end indeed justify the means? Can it be good, if someone manipulates the other into doing the right thing? If you don’t convince them by reasoning with them, but manipulate them to achieve what you want – putting it this way, I actually answered my own question. Does this already count as manipulation?
It is true for both the film and the play, that it does the two things that an acted out story, in the best case scenario, provides: entertainment and food for thought. It is an ideal form of recreation for the end of the semester. You can find the show times and the casting here, on the theater’s website.
Photos: Dömölky Dániel – Vígszínház.