Film-Philosophy Conference, Film-Philosophy Conference 2012

The Saying and the Sound: Chaplin's The Great Dictator and the Connection between Language and War in the Work of Emmanuel Levinas

Moshe Shai Rachmuth


This talk uses a Levinasian reading to explain the mysterious “listen” that ends Charlie Chaplin's anti-Nazi comedy, The Great Dictator (1940). Both Levinas and Chaplin show an understanding of the limitations of language and in the latter's case even some suspicion towards language. Chaplin had two reasons to suspect language: language in cinema marked the end of The Tramp and language in public life, as it came through loud speakers during the 1930s, marked immense threat to human liberty around the planet. Chaplin's artistic fear of language comes out in both City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) in which the use of sound is minimal and public speech is consistently ridiculed.

In The Great Dictator, however, Chaplin's attitude towards rhetoric is more ambiguous. On one hand, the speeches of Hynkel, the dictator, are caricatures of fascism, but on the other hand, the film ends with an anti-war speech by the Jewish barber that openly expresses Chaplin's pacifist opinions rather than uses the usual subversive tools of comedy. I argue that in his last resort to language, Chaplin (like Levinas) manifests that even though language has been used and abused in order to aid the interests of the selfish being (personal, racial or national) the original role of language, which language always returns to, is the role of manifesting the responsibility of the self for the other.

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About the Presenter

Moshe Shai Rachmuth
vr´╗┐´╗┐University of Oregon
United States

Adjunct Professor

Department of Comparative Literature