23 October 2008

The Great Dictator, Arturo Ui

Adolf Hitler has fascinated many people – not only during his rise to leadership in Nazi Germany, but over the years. He has been, and still is, at the centre of much research and talk… and even filmmaking. Everyone from people who suffered during WW2 in Europe to historians, sociologists, psychologists, military strategists, management gurus to school children have heard of and discussed Hitler sometime or the other.

A niece of mine who had worked at a bookstore in Mumbai once told me that Hitler’s Mein Kampf was one of the highest-selling books at the store. What explains this? No idea. Except that, perhaps, in spite of his delusion, autocracy and cruelty, Adolf Hitler is a fascinating subject for many people. Some may revere him even today.

From all of this, and keeping aside my recent foray into Laurence Rees’ work (see my previous posts), two works of creativity stand out in my mind. First, The Great Dictator, a film by Charlie Chaplin released in 1940. And the other, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a play by Bertholt Brecht written in 1941. While Chaplin’s film is an all-time great work of art and acting, winning favour from adults and children all over the world, Brecht’s play is less well-known, particularly among Indian audiences.

It’s a coincidence that both Adolf Hitler and Charlie Chaplin were born in April 1889 (a few days of each other); Hitler in what was then Austria-Hungary and Chaplin in London, UK. The two men did not meet each other. A story suggests that Chaplin decided to work on The Great Dictator when a friend of his, Alexander Korda, remarked on the physical similarities between the two men and, upon doing some research, Chaplin found that both Hitler and he had both struggled to achieve what they had attained in their respective fields.

The Great Dictator is a parody of Adolf Hitler. The film’s hero, played by Chaplin, is a dictator called Adenoid Hynkel; but the resemblance to the real Hitler is indeed fantastic. In fact, many of the other characters in the film bear resemblance to actual men in Hitler’s coterie. Although Chaplin deals with many of the issues from Hitler’s life and the history around that time, the focus in The Great Dictator is on the delusional mind of Adenoid Hynkel.

When The Great Dictator was released in 1940, or when Chaplin had started work on the film two years earlier, Hitler’s atrocities were not so well known. Apparently, Chaplin had later said that, had he known about the real atrocities of the Nazis, he may not have introduced so much comedy in the film. Needless to say, Hitler had banned The Great Dictator from being screened in all German-occupied territories. But, a rumour exists that Hitler had seen a screening of The Great Dictator once.

Unlike Chaplin, who had the freedom of making films in Hollywood, German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, born nine years after Hitler and Chaplin, and a Marxist to boot, lived in fear of Nazi persecution. In 1933, when Hitler came into power, Brecht fled Germany, first to Denmark and then to Sweden, Finland and finally to the United States. It was in Finland in 1941 that Brecht wrote the play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. However, the play was not staged in English for another 20 years.

My introduction to The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui was 20-odd years ago in Kolkata, when the play was staged simply as Arturo Ui. Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is about a small-time gangster in Chicago, called Arturo Ui, who takes control of the cauliflower business in Chicago by getting rid of his opponents one by one. The play, and the characters within it, all have a strong resemblance to Hitler and his cronies, and the setting describes Germany just prior to Nazi rule.

Like The Great Dictator, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is a parody of Hitler and the Nazis, staged in a larger-than-life style, highlighting not just the evil ways that Hitler/Ui adopted in his rise to power, banning all opposition, but also the sense of the dramatic that he (both Hitler and Ui) seemed to possess and use to win his audience over. Of course, unlike Chaplin’s film, Brecht’s play has strong Marxist or anti-Fascist undertones, drawing parallels between actual German history and the scenes in his fictional play.

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