This film is without a doubt one of the greatest works of art ever to emerge from Hollywood, or anywhere else for that matter. Chaplin produces (stumping up almost $1.5 million of his own money) works diligently with composer Meredith Wilson on the score, creates a beautiful script, directs every sequence perfectly and delivers an Oscar-nominated performance to boot. You literally can't ask for more. The man was a true artist, and, moved by the plight that Jews, Gypsies (Chaplin was of Romanichal descent, as I am) and other dissenters were facing under the Nazi regime in Germany, he sought to appeal directly to as many people as he could. He shone a light on the inhumanity of Hitler's Germany at a time when no other studio would make such a statement. America had yet to join the war effort and was actually avoiding critique of the Nazis for political reasons. Chaplin's peers, partners and friends begged him not to release the film, but he had something to say. A message so powerful and provocative that he broke his famous silence in order to deliver it.
But before we get to the message, let me say this: the film is funny. In fact, its downright hilarious. I laughed all the way through it, from the stunningly accurate portrayal of ignorant leadership, the clever wordplay (especially the 'banana' scene) and the simple slapstick goodness of it all. There are darker themes, and although the film stays very much a comedy until its final scene, it is poignant and moving. Nobody outside of the victims and the perpetrators knew the full extent of the horrors going on in the death camps, and Chaplin has since expressed regret that the film was too light-hearted in this area, however, casting my eye from 2010, I find it perfectly judged. The humour is not mean spirited in any way, and the portrayal of the Jews is sensitive and responsible. It took a brave man to make such a film, especially at the time he did.
At the very end of the film, Chaplin delivers arguably the most stunning speech ever recorded for a movie, and I mean that. He hadn't really spoken on film before, but when he did speak he certainly made it count. Its the sort of life affirming moment of hope that reminds you why you like movies in the first place (comparable only to "merry Christmas you wonderful old building and loan!" from Capra's classic 'Its a wonderful life') it is a direct plea to the audience for some sense as the whole world collapsed into war. It is the promise of love, hope and all that is good about life, and sadly it has yet to be fulfilled. The passion in his voice and the seriousness that emerges from the formerly clownish figure is not, as is widely misinterpreted, out of character but is in fact representative of the strength of which the individual is capable. It remains Chaplin's most enduring artistic statement, and the blueprint for a better world.
When you feel down this film will be there for you, like a light in the dark or a phone call from an old friend. They don't make movies like this anymore.