The Childish Dictator

Paper by Gretchen Vanick.

The year 1940 was a tumultuous year around the world. Germany had recently taken over Czechoslovakia and Poland a few months prior to the start of the year, and then allied with Italy the following March. The policy of appeasement that the rest of Europe had insisted on failed, and Britain and France were launched into a full-scale war against the new alliance. Meanwhile, the United States, though they had sent supplies to the Britain and France, remained neutral in the face of these events (“A Timeline of WWII (1939-1945)”). In the midst of this, Charlie Chaplin releases his film The Great Dictator in October of 1940. The film is a political satire, poking fun at the foreign dictators and portraying them in a negative light to call attention to the real issues. The film had started production in 1937 when Europe was still bent on appeasing Germany thinking it would bring about peace instead of war, and Chaplin released this film to speak out against such methods. The Great Dictator (Chaplin, Charles, 1940) criticizes the appeasement policy by using parody to make the titular dictator appear as an entitled child who must be stopped before being given too much power, and the scene that exemplifies this the most is one in which dictator Hynkel performs a playful dance with a globe made out of a balloon.

In this scene, the camerawork is fairly simple and easy to follow. At the start of the scene, the dictator Hynkel climbs down from a curtain and walks over to and around the globe while still keeping a distance. During this motion, the camera follows Hynkel on his way to the globe but remains zoomed out enough to include both him and the globe on the screen at the same time. The camera closes in on Hynkel and the globe as he stalks closer to it and the globe slowly becomes the focus of the shot. Throughout the following dance sequence, the camera cuts between focusing on Hynkel and the globe. When the globe is hit high into the air, the camera swings up and follows its descent. There are a few instances where the camera remains on Hynkel but the viewer is still able to see the shadow of the globe against the wall in the background. The only time the camera closes in again is at the end of the scene when the balloon is popped and then it fades to the next scene.
The music in this scene is one continuous piece, and the dialogue is limited. The orchestral piece begins playing as Hynkel’s advisor Garbitsch (Henry Daniell) leaves the room so that the dictator can be alone, and continues through to the end of the scene. The piece is a prelude to the first act of an opera titled “Lohengrin” composed by Richard Wagner, and one source notes that this prelude was one of Hitler’s favorite pieces (Vance, Jeffrey). The piece is very sweet and almost ethereal, giving the scene a dreamy and innocent feel despite the deeper meaning. There is only one line of dialogue in the scene and it occurs at the beginning as Hynkel approaches the globe and embraces it. As he takes the globe, Hynkel repeats the Latin phrase “aut Caesar aut nullus”, which translates to “either a Caesar or nothing”. He then follows this phrase with “Emperor of the world… my world,” and then the dialogue ends with a cackle as the globe is tossed into the air (Chaplin, Charlie). These words further showcase Hynkel’s dream of conquering the world and the importance of this goal to him, and the reference to Caesar illustrates how highly he views himself. The cackle at the end gives his character the feel of a villain, and is juxtaposed on top of the peaceful music in the background.

The mise en scene of this scene is important to pay attention to. One important aspect is the size of the globe. It is much larger than what a normal globe would look like, and this helps to draw attention to its significance with Hynkel’s dream of world domination. The size of it also helps the viewer see Hynkel as a child in this scene, as the globe is nearly as large as he is. If the globe were to be the normal size, this scene would not have the same impact. Another aspect to note is the position and size of the symbol of Hynkel’s regime, the “double cross”. In this room it is also very large and the wall is painted to look as if there are beams of light streaming from it. During Hynkel’s dance with the globe, there are many times when it is thrown directly in front of the double cross or to the sides and directly above it to represent his military conquering the world. The rest of the set is the inside of Hynkel’s large office, and it is set to look very elaborate and high-class.

The context of this scene is yet another key piece to look at. The goal of Hynkel in this phase of the movie is to invade the neighboring country of Osterlich, but several difficulties have arisen. In the scene just prior to the globe scene, Hynkel’s advisor Garbitsch is speaking to him about a small group of dissenters and he shifts the conversation to give the dictator some encouragement. In summary, he tells Hynkel that once the dissenters are taken over and the Jews done away with, the other countries will fall at his knees after he takes Osterlich. The conversation – and Garbitsch – is partly the reason why Hynkel’s mind is filled with such dreams of grandeur. The thought of becoming like a god to the world is what drives him to perform the dance with the globe.

There are arguably many themes present in The Great Dictator, but one that is perpetuated the most often is how childish the dictator is portrayed along with how this immaturity will inevitably bring about the failure of the dictator. As mentioned previously the dance and the music evoke a childlike innocence about Hynkel as he prances around his office. The fact that the globe is a balloon also contributes to this, as balloons are most often associated with children. There is no one in the room with Hynkel as he dances, poking and prodding the balloon to make it follow the path that he wants. This is symbolic of the appeasement policy, which essentially left Hitler, Hynkel’s real-life counterpart, unchecked. It is also representative of how much power Hitler had over the real world as the appeasement continued (Jacoby, Cortland). As Hynkel directs the globe, he ends up holding it close and it pops as he clutches it too tightly. In this moment, the film is saying without words that if the dictators are left to do as they please in hopes of maintaining peace, it will only end up destroying the world. This is the irony of this scene – the beautiful and dreamlike dance at first glance juxtaposed on top of a much more serious topic and message. There is another childish aspect to this, and that is Hynkel’s focus on himself. The camera often focuses on just Hynkel as he throws the globe into the air, showing how the dictator is only thinking of his own aspirations and views the needs of those he is ruling over in complete disregard.

Despite the balloon popping, Hynkel fails to make any realizations through the rest of the movie. His face shows great sadness when the balloon initially pops, but in the next scene where he appears he is just as determined to continue with his plans – perhaps even more determined than earlier. The theme of the childish dictator is especially evident when the dictator of Bacteria, Napaloni, comes to visit Tomania. The immature qualities that Hynkel displays are extended to Napaloni during this visit. In an attempt to make the other feel inferior, the two leaders end up finding themselves in childish spats with each other. There is one scene where the two engage in a food fight behind closed doors, which is an action hardly expected of a dictator, and another where the two silently challenge each other in a contest where each keeps raising his chair higher. During all these scenes, Hynkel is determined to get Napaloni to bow to his demands so that he will be able to take Osterlich for himself which would then theoretically lead to his world domination.

In the end, The Great Dictator is a political satire film that performed its job well. The globe scene stands out from the rest of the film and by presenting Hynkel as he did, Chaplin sent out a clear message that the real life dictators should not be trusted to do what they please with the world. The film was met with great distaste even before filming at first from certain sides, and it was even said that Hitler viewed the film and despised it, but production went through and it went on to become a classic.

Works Cited

Cole, Robert. “Anglo-American Anti-Fascist Film Propaganda in a Time of Neutrality: The Great Dictator, 1940.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol. 21, no. 2, 2001, pp. 137-152., doi:10.1080/01439680120051488.
Chaplin, Charlie. The Great Dictator. United Artists, 1940.
Jacoby, Cortland. “The Great Dictator.” Introduction to Cinema, 15 Sept. 2014,
A Timeline of WWII (1939-1945). Brown University Library,
Vance, Jeffrey. “The Great Dictator.” Library of Congress.


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